By Leader Contributor Michael Elliott, Senior Legal Counsel for Carriage Services, Inc.
Like all of you who read The Funeral Leader, I dedicate every day to the death care industry, but our jobs are probably a little different.
As Senior Legal Counsel for Carriage Services, a large portion of my work focuses on helping Carriage funeral homes and cemeteries navigate family dynamics to ensure that families get the best possible service at the lowest possible risk to the business. Not only can you do both, but by limiting risk in a thoughtful, strategic way, you will ultimately provide better overall service to families. Approaching your risk — or put another way — adopting and following best practices, is a broad discussion that touches upon many aspects of the services you provide.
As a result, I intend to write a series of articles so that we can take a closer look at some of the topics within the framework of managing your risk. 
Here are the types of questions I always expect to hear first:
- What is the law in my state?
- Can’t I cremate if three out of four children want to cremate and one wants to bury?
- I know this couple; I only like the wife, so shouldn’t we let her make the decisions?
- The brother will never pay; should he really have a say in the arrangements?
- The wife said we can just let the kids do what they want for their father’s funeral. Isn’t that enough?
- The deceased has a pre-need for burial but told me before he died that he wanted cremation. Can the kids change the arrangements to cremation?
- The man who bought the cemetery space passed away years ago and never used his interment right. Who can use the space?
These are all great questions, but it’s not where I want to start. All of you spend your days talking with and learning about people. There’s no doubt you have an astute sixth sense that triggers when something just seems off. It might be that you are not sure if someone was legally married or that you think there is probably another adult child that you are not being told about. In law school, we were taught that this is called “issue spotting.” You do it every day.
The biggest mistake I see is what happens immediately after an issue is spotted. As consumers, we engage in expectation setting throughout the process of buying goods and services.
For example, let’s say I want to buy a red four-wheel-drive truck. The salesperson tells me that they have that truck available for the advertised sales price of “X dollars.” She takes the potential sale to her manager, comes back out, and then notifies me that the red four-wheel-drive truck is actually $1,500 more due to its popularity, but they have the grey truck available for the sales price. I now feel misled and head to the competitor to buy its red four-wheel-drive truck. I am not mad about the price, but I am mad that my expectations were improperly set.
You might make the same mistake after an issue is spotted if you set the wrong expectations. If you tell the three siblings they can choose cremation, even if their sister — the fourth sibling — wants burial and that’s not true, they might not appreciate it. If you tell the next-of-kin they can alter pre-need arrangements and they actually cannot, expectations have been set that you can’t meet. If you tell a family they can use a pre-paid burial space, but the ex-wife of the space owner actually owns the space, that family might be a lot less willing to write a check for the interment right than they would have been. It’s not the results in these examples that angers families; it’s the communication.
If you take nothing else from my articles, please remember to slow down, hit the pause button, and give yourself a chance to think through the issue you have spotted before making commitments to a family.
You can communicate why a service needs to be delayed or why a long-lost spouse should be contacted in a way that the family, even if they are frustrated, will understand and respect … and it could protect you legally under your state’s laws. However, communicating that you created a false expectation not only might anger people, but they will lose faith in the other things you told them. Hitting pause also allows you to ask your colleagues questions, call your legal counsel, or seek out additional resources so that when you give the family an answer, it’s the correct one every time.
If you want to talk about expectation setting, or any other matters discussed in this article, please reach out at [email protected].
About the Author
Mike Elliott is the Senior Legal Counsel for Carriage Services, Inc. and serves as the Chief Compliance Officer for Carriage’s Registered Investment Advisor. He has been with Carriage since January 2017. Prior to working at Carriage, Mike defended complex, nationwide pharmaceutical and medical device mass tort lawsuits and then had a busy trial practice. Mike earned his undergraduate degrees from the University of San Diego and earned his law degree from the George Washington University Law School. Mike can be reached at (713) 332-8452 or at [email protected].