AUT's Anna Hacker and Emma Sakellaris

The wishes of family members for their funeral arrangements are often being ignored by their loved ones for profit, Anna Hacker has said.

Speaking at a media event on funeral disputes, the national manager of estate planning at Australian Unity Trustees (AUT) said unscrupulous families were increasingly backtracking on the wishes of the parents and that legislation was being put forward to assure people the right to choose their own funeral arrangements.

“You can prepay your funeral, you can buy your burial plot for your family, and when you die they can redeem it and sell it,” Hacker said. “Funeral insurance can be sold off or redeemed, it can be used for absolutely anything. People just spend the least amount possible, and they don’t have to show what they used the money for.”

Exacerbating the problem, Hacker said, is that funeral plots are in high demand. By the time the intended dies, she said, families are tempted to sell them at a premium.

“We are increasingly seeing this happen,” added Emma Sakellaris, general manager at AUT. “I’ve seen families do things I cannot believe people would do. It’s unfortunate but it’s reality.”

In all states, there is no legal obligation to keep a person’s wishes with regard to how they want their body to be disposed of when they die. In February 2017, the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) tabled a “funeral and burial instructions” report in Parliament that reviewed the relevant law under the premise that it would be “of significant benefit to the community”.

The report suggested that the current law, which emerged from 19th-century England, was “out of step with the values and expectations of people living in Victoria today”, and concluded that “a new act is needed to enable people to leave binding funeral and burial instructions or appoint a funeral or burial agent”.

“If implemented, the act would encourage people to discuss their funeral and burial arrangements with their loved ones before recording their wishes in accordance with the law,” the report asserted. “It is the commission’s hope that this will bring comfort to people planning their funeral and burial, and minimise disputes among the bereaved.”

A VLRC staffer confirmed that the report had not yet been picked up by Parliament, but Hacker has not given up hope.

“Unfortunately, none of the recommendations [have been] adopted yet,” Hacker said. “It was advocated by a huge number of groups that work in that space, including lawyers and people who work in the area of elder abuse – because they see it as an elder abuse issue as well.”

Until legislation is passed, Sakellaris said, the best people can do is to talk about their wishes with people they trust – including the executor of their estate.

“Put it in your will and tell everybody,” she said. “Talk about it with your family and make sure everyone knows.”

Another way to protect your wishes, Hacker added, was to buy a funeral bond.

“A funeral bond, because of the tax advantages, has to be used for a funeral,” Hacker said. “It can’t be unbound.”

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Tahn Sharpe is a Sydney-based financial services journalist with a background in financial planning. He writes on advice, superannuation, investment, banking and insurance issues, is a certified SMSF Adviser and holds an Advanced Diploma of Financial Planning.