Funeral costs can be prohibitive for those on low incomes, and can be a source of stress for bereaved people during an already difficult period.
In 2016, the Scotland Act devolved benefits 'providing financial or other assistance for the purposes of meeting or reducing […] funeral expenses', meaning the Scottish Government had the power to change financial support to bereaved people for the first time. The Funeral Support Payment (FSP) was launched in September 2019 to help people on low incomes afford funerals, to reduce funeral poverty and help bereaved people. FSP is paid to one person per funeral, and applicants must be reasonably responsible for covering funeral costs and in receipt of certain benefits or tax credits.
This report presents the findings of qualitative research with FSP clients, funeral directors and third sector organisations, exploring their experiences of FSP.
Aims and methods
Ipsos MORI Scotland was commissioned by the Scottish Government to conduct qualitative research with recipients of FSP, funeral directors and relevant third sector organisations to explore their experiences of the payment and understand its impact on bereaved families as well as on the wider funeral industry, including funeral directors and relevant third sector organistions.
This project was qualitative in nature and is based on 26 in-depth interviews with recipients of FSP, one mini group of third sector representatives and six interviews with funeral directors. Interviews lasted between 45 minutes and an hour and were conducted via telephone or Zoom between August and December 2021.
Awareness and understanding of FSP
Clients typically heard about the availability of FSP from their funeral director. Other sources included the hospital, advice workers, family, social workers, or religious organisations. Few clients were aware of the support prior to their bereavement and a number of suggestions were made for improving levels of awareness among the general public (e.g. TV advertising or leaflets in hospitals or other care settings).
Third sector organisations and funeral directors demonstrated high levels of awareness and understanding of FSP and felt confident in their ability to advise clients about it.
Clients generally understood what the payment was and whether or not they would be eligible for it, based on the information provided to them by the funeral director (or other source), the Scottish Government's website or via the Social Security Scotland helpline. There was some evidence that it was not clear to clients what would or would not be covered by FSP.
Clients were broadly positive about their experiences applying for FSP. The process of applying was generally considered to be straightforward, with some exceptional cases where clients felt judged or challenged.
The main issue raised about the application process was the timeframe. Clients were typically awaiting the outcome of their applications while having to proceed with their funeral arrangements, sometimes feeling pressure to cover the funeral costs before knowing if they would receive FSP and how much would be awarded. In cases where there were delays to the process, this could cause additional distress to clients.
Use of FSP
Participants described varied funeral arrangements and associated costs. There was a view that those living in island communities are likely to have higher funeral costs (especially transport costs including ferries).
There was widespread uncertainty about what exactly FSP had covered, but recipients were typically aware of the general contribution FSP had made to their funeral costs, which ranged from around a fifth up to the entire cost.
Among those who did not have the entire cost of the funeral covered, there was a feeling that FSP was not enough to be an effective contribution, given the high cost of even a basic funeral. This was echoed by funeral directors, although there was an acknowledgement that FSP will always be less than people would like.
FSP was not widely perceived to have influenced funeral choices, either because recipients were uncertain about how much they would receive, or other factors (such as the wishes of the deceased) were more important.
Awareness of simple burials or direct cremations was fairly low and views were mixed on the benefits of these options. There was some concern among third sector organisations and funeral directors that basic funerals may not always meet people's needs and must be promoted carefully.
Other influences on funeral choices included the COVID-19 pandemic, funeral plans and social norms (for example, religion, culture and expectations of others). These were not major influences on funeral costs, although pandemic-related restrictions on numbers could save catering costs.
An important factor in how recipients used FSP was whether they chose to have the money sent directly to them, or straight to their funeral director, and there were a range of views among recipients, funeral directors and stakeholders about this. On the one hand, recipients who received FSP directly did this because it helped them manage their money, avoid being in debt to a funeral director, or be compensated for a funeral that had already taken place. On the other hand, recipients who preferred to have FSP sent straight to their funeral director said this was less hassle, that there was less risk of spending it on other things, and that it would reassure funeral directors.
While there was an appreciation among third sector groups that empowering people to manage their money was a good thing, the issue of the payment not being passed on was acknowledged as a risk which could cause other issues, such as more debt or funerals being cancelled.
Impact of FSP on clients' financial wellbeing
Clients tended to be already living with financial stress at the point of bereavement, and even those who felt relatively comfortable said they would have struggled to pay for the funeral without FSP. There were also cases where bereavement had directly worsened clients' financial circumstances, for example by causing changes in benefit entitlement.
Clients expressed shock at the cost of a funeral. Without FSP, they said they would have had to borrow money or cut back in other essential areas to pay for the funeral. FSP therefore had a positive impact on clients' finances and helped clients avoid financial 'turmoil'.
However, the financial impact was limited by the fact that clients still found it hard to find the money for the elements of the funeral not covered by FSP, and in some cases had to take on debt to do so. Clients also experienced financial stress while waiting for their FSP application to be approved, an issue exacerbated where there were delays in the process.
Impact of FSP on clients' mental wellbeing and grieving process
FSP had an impact on recipients' wellbeing in three main ways: minimising financial worries about paying for the funeral; alleviating concerns about letting down the person who had died by making greater choice around the funeral possible; and allowing clients to focus on grieving rather than money. Clients recognised, however, that grieving was a difficult, long-term process regardless of finances, so there was a limit to how much FSP could help. The positive impacts were again limited by: delays in receiving FSP; not knowing how much would be covered; and FSP not covering the full funeral cost.
Impact of FSP on business and the wider funeral industry
Funeral directors confirmed that FSP does not substantially change clients spending choices. This was partly because they were still planning a funeral on a tight budget.
Funeral directors reported that a FSP claim also made little difference to the amount of time it takes them to plan a funeral. It took longer if the funeral director chose to support an application more actively, or where communication from Social Security Scotland was considered inefficient, but overall the impact was minor.
They also commented that FSP money tended to arrive as quickly or more quickly than non-FSP payments, particularly when it was being sent directly to their business. However, they did highlight that the payment reference number system makes it difficult to identify which payment from Social Security Scotland was for which funeral account.
Funeral directors felt that it would be easier for them to support FSP clients if there was greater promotion of FSP, greater involvement of funeral directors in FSP development, and better communication from Social Security Scotland about the progress of claims.
Funeral directors and third sector participants discussed the payment method of FSP, balancing the importance of client choice with the possibility that the money would not make it to funeral directors.
The research identified a number of positive impacts of FSP:
- The prevention or minimisation of debt.
- Enabling clients to focus on the grieving process rather than worrying about finances.
- Providing some assurance to funeral directors on timely bill payment.
Some issues for consideration were also highlighted:
- Improving awareness of FSP, such as through funeral directors or healthcare settings.
- Reviewing aspects of the application process and eligibility criteria.
- Improving the timeframe for decision-making and communication post-application.
- Taking into account the range of views on the payment method.
- Reviewing the FSP award amounts in relation to the average cost of funerals in Scotland.
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