Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay

Sep 10, 2015
Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay I’m really keen to see that new film ‘Legend’, about the Kray twins. I have a friend with huge knowledge of London’s gangster scene during the 1960’s and it’ll be fascinating to see how this latest portrayal is approached. As a funeral director I occasionally have to suffer bad debts and there are times when I fantasise about having the Krays’ approach to credit control!   

“How can anyone think of not paying for a funeral?!” People ask, with polite but faux incredulity. After all, considering everything else going in the world, is it really any surprise that sometimes funerals don’t get paid for? It hardly ranks as a ten on the Richter Scale of most despicable crimes, does it? 

Our response though, does inspire ghoulish curiosity: 

“So what do you do when someone doesn’t pay?” 

I did once give in to temptation and say: “Well, in the good old days we just bundled them into a Transit van, carted them off to a deserted warehouse and threatened to let them have their wife & children back in instalments. But we can’t do that anymore. It’s politically incorrect, or illegal…. something like that.”

“That’s horrible!” My questioner exclaimed, breathless with astonishment at what they thought was the moment my mask slipped! Unable to resist, I casually added: “Well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking legs, can you?”   

Whilst bad debts are mercifully rare for my firm, they still bring out the latent Kray twin in me when they do occur. However, what actually happens in the wake of a bad debt will largely be governed by the circumstances of the debt itself. The majority are ‘can’t pays’ rather than ‘won’t pays’, but even then the situation is rarely that clear cut. I’ve had one outright ‘won’t pay’, but it turned out the client was just a chancer and in the end he blinked first and we got paid. But although the ‘can’t pays’ are responsible for the majority of bad debt in the funeral profession, honest poverty is rarely the cause and an effective response requires a degree of healthy cynicism as well as a shrewd approach.   

A great deal of so-called ‘poverty’ in modern Britain is caused by little more than bad financial choices and it’s much the same with funerals. In the same way a 50” flat-screen TV and Sky Sports subscription are now seen as more essential for living than paying the electricity bill or feeding the kids, so an expensive send-off is seen as equally necessary. Inevitably though, little thought is given to how it will actually be paid for. On the basis that “we is on benefits, ain’t we?”, whatever the DWP doesn’t fork out for is usually ignored, until I as the hapless funeral director already bankrolling the delinquent client, can find a way to make them pay what they owe.   

The other problem, as just about anyone in business will tell you, is that County Courts are often a toothless method of recourse. If a County Court Judgement against their name isn’t enough to frighten a debtor (and for hardened debtors it rarely is), then it’s like sentencing them to forty lashes with a knotted bootlace.   

However, in this post ‘right-to-buy’ era, we can often catch the debtor by having a legal charge put on their house; meaning that whenever the house is eventually sold we’ll get our money plus compound interest, before the debtor sees any sale proceeds. It doesn’t do anything to correct the blip in our cash flow of course, but there is the knowledge that we’ll get paid eventually. For us there’s also the satisfaction of knowing the hassle that having a charge on their house will cause for the debtor, who will almost certainly have other creditors chasing them at various times. A legal charge is a gift that keeps on giving – a little something for the debtor to remember us by…   

Going back to gangsters, the Krays’ main adversaries were the Richardson brothers, who allegedly used pliers and jolts of electricity to teach a lesson to the miscreants who’d incurred their wrath. Tempting though it is, I think I’d better stick to applying for County Court judgements!

James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.   

He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director”

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