FEMA's Covid funeral assistance program is up and running after a rocky start. Here's how to apply

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved more than 2,585 applications for newly available Covid-19 funeral assistance in the first month after the program launched -- but there are many more people waiting for help. By Tami Luhby and Liz Stark, CNN

(CNN) -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved more than 2,585 applications for newly available Covid-19 funeral assistance in the first month after the program launched -- but there are many more people waiting for help.

The agency received nearly 176,000 applications from those who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus as of May 11, FEMA said, and distributed more than $17.8 million so far, with the average claim coming in at $6,887.

Texas residents have had the most awards approved in the first weeks, at 318, followed by Ohioans at 303, New Yorkers at 176 and Californians at 128, according to the agency's data from May 10.

How to apply

Applicants start the process by calling FEMA's funeral assistance hotline, 844-684-6333. They are then sent a letter and have 90 days to submit all of the required documentation to determine eligibility. Applications can only be processed after all the paperwork is received.

To qualify, the death must have occurred in the US or its territories, and funeral expenses must have been incurred after January 20, 2020. The death certificate must indicate that the death was attributed to or likely caused by Covid-19 or coronavirus-like symptoms.

Have you applied for FEMA funeral assistance? Tell us about it here.

While the applicant must be a US citizen or legal resident, there is no requirement that the deceased person meet this criteria.

Applicants can receive up to $9,000 per burial, with a maximum of $35,500 per application. There is currently no deadline to apply for funeral assistance, the agency has said.

Covered expenses include the transfer of remains, burial plot, casket, clergy services, cremation and headstone, among other costs. But the aid will be reduced if the applicant received benefits from burial or funeral insurance or financial assistance from other sources.

Some $2 billion was allocated as part of the $900 billion relief deal Congress approved in December, while the Democrats' $1.9 trillion package in March bolstered it by providing the agency with an additional $50 billion to use for coronavirus-related costs.

A rocky start

The program got off to a rocky start in April, plagued by busy signals and technical issues. The agency was overwhelmed on the first day when more than 1 million callers dialed into the funeral assistance hotline.

Due to the sensitive nature of the program, FEMA decided to register applicants by phone rather than online. More than 5,000 agents have been contracted to take calls.

"Right now, our focus is empathy when we talk about individuals that have lost loved ones. We want to make sure that we do it in an empathetic way," then-acting Administrator Robert Fenton told Congress earlier this year, noting that the scale and scope of the program is unprecedented for FEMA.

Fenton acknowledged the bumpy rollout in a congressional hearing last month but said the agency "cleaned that up by the second day."

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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