Inadequate funding and a cumbersome bureaucracy have left some families of veterans scrambling to find the money to cover the funeral and burial expenses of loved ones, says a report from the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman.
In a toughly worded 19-page report titled Serve With Honour, Depart With Dignity, Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran makes seven recommendations to bring the Veterans Funeral and Burial Regulations established by Veterans Affairs Canada and administered by the Last Post Fund up to date for today’s veterans.
The Last Post Fund is a non-profit organization and registered charity with roots reaching back to its founding in Montreal in 1909. It is dedicated to seeing that no veteran goes without a dignified burial because of a lack of finances. The fund was incorporated in 1921 and has been receiving government funding since then.
At the same time, the federal government has its own Funeral and Burial Program offering assistance for war veterans whose death is directly attributed to military service or those who are on a disability pension and lack sufficient means for a proper burial.
VAC turned to the Last Post Fund’s expertise to take over the administration of its Funeral and Burial Program in 1998. When a veteran dies, the Last Post Fund may step in immediately and help arrange for a funeral or, if the family has already arranged the funeral, a grant may be awarded to reimburse the family for the expenses. In 2007, the Last Post Fund processed approximately 16,000 applications on behalf of VAC.
In the report, the ombudsman’s office points out that the Funeral Association of Canada estimates the average cost for a funeral in 2008 was $5,892 while the present maximum benefit provided by VAC is $3,600. That rate was last increased in 2001 when the rate rose from $2,993. According to the Funeral Association of Canada, the average cost of a funeral over an 18-year period ending in 2008 increased by 37 per cent while the VAC program only increased its grants by 20 per cent.
The report recommends that the ceiling for a veteran’s funeral and burial reflect industry standards and that an indexing formula be adopted to keep up with cost-of-living increases.
The report also notes that the regulations take an itemized approach for the reimbursement of funds. As an example, the cost of a casket or flowers may be covered, but only up to a certain amount. The report notes that the Department of National Defence and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police use a lump-sum approach so that the allotted money can be spent at the families’ discretion.
If the veteran is survived by a spouse or dependent children, the veteran’s estate is established excluding the family home, automobile, regular income cheques issued to the veteran for the month of death and assets of value of $700 per each dependent child and assets of $12,015 for the spouse are excluded. If the remaining assets are sufficient to cover the costs, no grant is approved. If they can cover a portion of the expenses, a grant may be approved to make up the difference. The report also notes that in 1995 the estate exemption was reduced from $25,000 to $12,000 and recommends that the exemption for the spouse be increased to be more in line with present day income and costs.
“If the veteran is single and his estate adds up to a nickel more than the level established for the funeral, then we don’t pay a cent,” noted Last Post Fund National President Lou Cuppens in an interview with Legion Magazine.
“Part of the problem is that the rates are regulated. If they are to be changed, then they have to go to Treasury Board for approval,” said Cuppens.
Most contentiously, the report looks at extending the eligibility of veterans. Veterans must have served in the First World War, the Second World War or the Korean War. Modern-day veterans can be eligible if death is directly attributed to service-related injuries or if they are receiving earning loss benefits under the New Veterans Charter. The report cites several resolutions from The Royal Canadian Legion over the past 10 years calling on the government to open up the program to all veterans.
“We find that the eligibility criteria for the Funeral and Burial Program exclude some modern-day veterans. The criteria should be all-encompassing to include reservists and civilians deployed with the Canadian Forces on overseas operations. This would ensure fairness for all members of the veteran community,” the report states.
Cuppens says that the Last Post Fund does not keep statistics on applications it turns down, but he and his colleagues feel there are probably about 50 modern-day veterans who have been turned down in recent years. “I know, locally in New Brunswick, of three incidents,” he said. “Two years ago we adjusted our letters patent to cover the modern-day veterans, but the government has not kept in lockstep.”
Cuppens said the Last Post Fund executive supports the ombudsman’s report. “We have always felt that a veteran is a veteran is a veteran,” he said.
The ombudsman’s report also criticized the government for not making military families better aware of the burial and funeral program. It also noted that applications for reimbursements for a funeral and burial that has already taken place must be filed within one year of the death. While the report found that one year was consistent with other programs administered by VAC, it recommended that the department be more flexible and allow for extraordinary circumstances to be considered when the established time frame is exceeded.