In March 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a statement committing financial assistance for COVID-19 funeral expenses incurred after January 20, 2020. Last month, Amanda Bosley from Lone Star Legal Aid, Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz from Pro Bono Net, and Brittany Perrigue Gomez from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid presented policy updates regarding the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program and FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guide. These updates were part of an online One-Hour Briefing sponsored by the Practising Law Institute, a nonprofit organization that organizes continuing legal education programs for attorneys and other professionals. Amy Taub from the Practising Law Institute acted as the Program Attorney for the briefing. The online event also highlighted ideal practices for representing individuals under the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program as well as resources available to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

From the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020 through August 11, 2021, there were a reported 615,459 COVID-19 deaths in the United States. By August 9, 2021, FEMA had received approximately 250,600 applications through its COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program. Considering the recent weather hazards across the country, like Hurricane Ida, FEMA is also processing disaster-related assistance applications. FEMA  has revised and streamlined its policies affecting disaster survivors through its response to crises over the years. The main differences below distinguish applications received in natural disaster situations in comparison to COVID-19 expenses:

FEMA COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program

Those eligible for the FEMA COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program include U.S. citizens, non-citizen nationals, or qualified immigrants who have paid for pandemic-related funeral expenses after January 20, 2020. These expenses include transportation, burial, ceremony costs, and any other additional expenses qualified by local government mandates. Applications can be submitted using the FEMA hotline at 844-684-6333. To this date, there is no deadline to apply. Panelists provided additional information related to the program, such as:

  • The award maximum for the program is $9,000 per funeral with a $35,500 maximum cap.
  • 100% of funds for the program are administered federally.

FEMA’s Ongoing Response to Climate-Driven Disasters

Natural disaster applications must be submitted within 60 days from when the disaster is declared and can be extended up to 30 days for “good cause.” Funding for natural disaster compensation is 75% federal and 25% state cost share.

Besides the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program, there has also been recent legislation to protect victims of natural disasters. The Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) was signed into law on October 5, 2018, with the goal of creating a culture of preparedness and to ready the nation for catastrophic disasters as well as to reduce the complexity of FEMA. Under the DRRA, maximum award amounts were separated for Housing Assistance and Other Needs Assistance. The maximum benefit for both categories is $36,000, although this amount changes each year based on inflation. The DRRA also increased the Group Flood Insurance Policy coverage and premium, which is equivalent to the FEMA Individuals and Households Program maximum combined grant amounts for Other Needs Assistance and Housing Assistance.

Changes in FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guide allow for greater financial coverage for victims of the pandemic as well as other natural disasters that have taken great financial tolls on families across the country. Shortly after the program, FEMA announced a change in its policy to ensure access equitable access all survivors. There are many ways in which attorneys can provide legal help assistance to individuals navigating FEMA. Attorneys can learn more on the required documentation, eligibility, and application process using the resources below.

Maxwell Lawson is a third year student at the George Washington University studying International Affairs with a concentration in Comparative Political, Economic, and Social Systems. He has studied Spanish, Korean, and Mandarin and aims to use these languages in the field of international law after graduating college. At Pro Bono Net, he serves as a Communications and Development Intern contributing to outreach and content production for the organization.