HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – It’s peace of mind - making sure when the time comes, your funeral arrangements are taken care of. Barbara Hill thought she was covered. She purchased and paid for her funeral arrangements 17 years ago with Twickenham Funeral Homes & Memory Gardens in Huntsville. She paid more than $2,000 for everything, and had the final receipt to prove it.
What she didn’t know, was Twickenham Funeral Home sold in 2011. New ownership took over, called Hampton Cove Funeral Home and Cemetery. You can imagine Hill’s surprise when she stopped in to verify her arrangements, and they had no record of her name, her purchase or her plot.
“It was supposed to be put in a trust,” said Hill. “At least, that was my understanding.”
Barabara said office employees told her several people had come out of the wood work with similar claims. So she called WHNT News 19 to see if we could help clear things up.
It turns out Hampton Cove Funeral Home Director & Owner Charles Kent was fully aware of the issue.
“One out of every two to three files is missing when a family comes in,” Kent told us.
It’s a shocking number that left Charles Kent facing some major financial hurdles. Kent tells WHNT News 19 he has scoured all the files left behind from Twickenham and the amount missing is numerous.
The previous owner, Cornelius Shih passed away prior to the sale, leaving Kent with a collapsing mausoleum to fix, run-down buildings and the mystery of these missing files. He’s now forced to assume the financial responsibility.
“It all comes out of our pocket, unless there’s some money that was allocated for this individual,” said Kent.
Kent says he will take care of Barbara and anyone else who comes in with pre-need services from Twickenham that are missing.
But that leads to a much bigger question. The files may be missing, but what about the money?
Consumer entrusted thousands of dollars to Twickenham, with no record of payment. Who has the money now, if Hampton Cove Funeral Home does not?
This is where our WHNT News Taking Action Investigation takes a sharp turn and we head to Montgomery for answers.
Government Relations Manager Mark Fowler with the Alabama Department of Insurance spoke candidly with us about the state's position.
“Unfortunately, the way the current law is written, there is just not a lot of teeth in it, and not a lot of control as to when that money has to be trusted,” Fowler told us.
The Department of Insurance’s goal is to make sure any funeral homes or cemeteries that sell preneed services deliver on their promise. The department, however, only oversees preneed contracts starting in May of 2002. They have no jurisdiction over cases prior to 2002, because that is the way the law is written. Hence the situation with Barbara Hill.
According to the terms of the Alabama Preneed Funeral and Cemetery Act, persons selling a “preneed contract” for funeral services, funeral merchandise, cemetery merchandise, and cemetery services on and after May 1, 2002, must first obtain a certificate of authority from the Commissioner of Insurance.
Additionally, all deposits by a consumer shall be made within 30 days after the end of the calendar month in which the preneed contract is paid in full, unless, prior to that time, all liabilities of the seller under the preneed contract to deliver the specific funeral merchandise or funeral services, or both, or the specific cash advances, identified by the preneed provider as properly allocated to the payment, have been satisfied, or the preneed contract is validly cancelled.
But that still leaves a lot of wiggle room for funeral directors and owners to use the money as they wish. This leads to the root of the problem with Twickenham Funeral Home. There was no law mandating the funeral home trust the money, enabling the mismanagement of funds. Something Kent says, he’s seen time and time again in his industry.
“I would like to see it where the law would go where you put it in as you pay, that it goes into the trust at that time,” said Kent.
The Alabama Department of Insurance says one key way to protect yourself is to make certain you`re purchasing preneed services from a funeral home or cemetery that is certified. They must have a what`s called a 'certificate of authority' and it should be posted on their wall.
Another option Charles Kent recommends is getting insurance, where you pay an outside agency for your funeral. They in turn take care of the final payment and it's 100 percent funded.
In the meantime, consumers need to know they have little protection as to where their money goes. As for Barbara Hill, she has an appointment with Hampton Cove Funeral Home to pick out her plot and get her funeral squared away.
And Kent says he’s prepared to take care of his customers, even the ones that he doesn’t know about.
Questions still linger about Twickenham Funeral Home's past. Surely someone knows where all the files and trusted money went.
WHNT News 19 will continue to dig deeper for answers.
Here are some links and phone numbers that consumers can use to check on a funeral home or understand the current law.
For complaints regarding Preneed Funeral/Cemetery Merchandise and Services:
Alabama Department of Insurance
P O Box 303351
Montgomery, AL 36130-3351