Death Care Compliance Law

Death Care Compliance Law

Preneed: A Pandora's Box of Problems

William Stalter is the founder of Stalter Legal Services and the Preneed Resource Company. Bill focuses his law practice on preneed and death care compliance, serving banks, funeral homes, crematories, and cemeteries. He has written multiple published articles

Father Knows Best: the Cassity Clan

Posted in Uncategorized

The remaining members of the Cassity clan have filed motions in opposition to the dismissal of Doug Cassity from the NPS civil lawsuit.  Rhonda Cassity and Tyler Cassity argue that they too are the victims of Doug’s scheming and fraudulent conduct, and that good ole’ Dad should be compelled to testify, and held accountable.

The plan to shelter assets under other family members has shown its ugly side.

Establishing a Red Flag System: Massachusetts Preneed Oversight

Posted in Uncategorized

The Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure and the state Board of Registration of Funeral Directors and Embalmers are taking flak over the one and half million dollars of preneed funds that may been diverted by the owner of the defunct Ryder Funeral Home in South Hadley.  The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that 200 Massachusetts funeral homes are late in filing their annual preneed reports and the newspaper is pressuring state regulators to explain how some funeral homes, such as the Ryder Funeral Home, were allowed to go years without filing a report.

Massachusetts death care regulators are not alone in the quest to obtain prompt preneed reports from funeral homes and cemeteries.  This issue was highlighted by Nebraska’s Department of Insurance when preneed legislation was discussed with the industry last year.  The Illinois Comptroller implemented a new fine system with the annual report form released last month.  A few years ago, Missouri’s State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers began suspending sellers’ licenses when their paperwork was not timely submitted.  But with limited staff and resources, how is a regulator to distinguish the tardy licensee from the funeral home or cemetery that is diverting preneed funds to their operating account?  As a representative of the Massachusetts State Board points out, there is no way to distinguish tardy guys from bad guys if so many operators are late to file.  So, the first course of action for that State Board was to request administrative complaints filed against all tardy filers.   But, will this provide regulators the information they need to red flag operators that may be diverting preneed funds?

Another member of the Massachusetts State Board described the preneed reports as useless, and recommended that preneed funds be kept out of the funeral director’s hands by requiring preneed payments be made with checks made payable to insurance companies or guaranteed trusts.

Missouri sought to implement a similar approach with regard to trust funded contracts, but the requirement met strong opposition from operators that provide primary accounting of contract payments.  Most corporate trustees do not have the administration required for installment payments or consumer payments that must be split among contracts and charges.  Nor did funeral operators want to bear the cost for banks to develop such administration.  Use of a clearing account dedicated to the operator’s preneed sales could remedy this problem.  Dictating the format of deposit transmittals to the clearing account, reports of the division of the payments, and resulting transmittal of trust deposits would provide inspectors an audit trail from the consumer’s hand to the preneed trust.  But, such reports may be difficult to understand if they are not produced monthly or quarterly.  While the Board’s staff may not have the time to review each quarterly clearing account report, the timely production of the reports would signal the operator is at least making timely deposits to the trust.

But, only the consumer may know whether all deposits have been made to his or her trust.  Consequently, the Massachusetts State Board may want to expand its preneed requirements to include an annual consumer statement similar to that required by Illinois. Each year, Illinois preneed trustees must produce a consumer statement that advises the contract purchaser the deposits and withdrawals that have been made to their preneed account.  The statement must also disclose the fees and taxes paid from the account, and its market value.  In theory, the consumer statement will trigger inquiries if the trustee fails to report a contract sold, or reports lower trust deposits than what the purchaser could expect.   The concept has merit for state death care regulators that lack the resources to turn every page of a funeral home’s preneed records.    Until a contract goes paid in full or lapses for failure of payments, the trustee could produce an annual consumer statement that would be mailed to the consumer, and made available at the funeral home where the contract was purchased.  The regulator’s website could advise consumers to expect a statement from the trustee, and to visit their funeral homes if the statement causes any questions.  If funeral director’s explanation does not add up, then an inquiry should be made to the state board.  That inquiry would create the red flag that would prompt the examiner to review the periodic reports filed on behalf of the funeral home.

Taking Liberties with the Law: Where is my due process?

Posted in NPS/Lincoln, Uncategorized

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.
Abraham Lincoln

Pleading by pleading, the Cassitys are speaking out against injustice.  Brent Cassity followed his father’s lead, and filed a motion to dismiss from the civil lawsuit against NPS’ former management and trustees.  The younger Cassity made a hodge podge of legal arguments better suited to a death row inmate. As if the Cassitys’ actions haven’t already cost the public enough, Brent has requested the court appoint a qualified attorney to represent his interests.  Otherwise, “basic fairness and due process” should dictate that Brent be dismissed from the SDR’s lawsuit.

The lawyers at Reilly Ponzer have to be chuckling.

Preneed Trust Options: Administrative Limitations

Posted in Uncategorized

The Memorial Business Journal’s July 10th story on the NFDA 2014 consumer survey included a commentator’s suggestion that preneed funding has declined because so few options are offered the consumer.  The story’s commentators interpreted the decline in preneed funding as reflecting fewer consumers being motivated by price guarantees, and those that might be, need installment options.  The commentator was alluding to a generation of funeral home operators having built their preneed programs around guaranteed contracts that required consumers to make single payment purchases.  Unable to pay for the entire cost of a preneed contract, fewer consumers are funding their prearrangements.

For funeral homes that rely upon trust funded preneed, installment options and/or non-guaranteed options require administration that becomes too complex for the spreadsheet software that opened the door to self-administration.  If your father’s preneed program required single pay contracts, investments in bonds (that were held to maturity) and grantor tax treatment to the funeral home, the program could easily be administered by the operator with spreadsheet software.  Lotus 1-2-3, the early frontrunner in spreadsheet software, was introduced in 1983, about the same time many preneed laws were being written.  While the earliest spreadsheets had their limitations, the software could easily handle the allocations required of a preneed program that sold guaranteed single pay contracts.  With income reported to the funeral home, the frequency of income allocations to contracts was often at the operator’s discretion.  For some states, the administrative standards were even lower.

When written in 1982, the Missouri law contemplated that all contracts would be guaranteed.  That law allowed sellers to withdraw income to the extent the trust market value did not fall below trust deposits.  Absent the income accrual requirement, Missouri sellers had no individual allocation requirements for income or values until 1988.  With Rev. Rul. 87-127, Missouri preneed contracts faced new income and expenses reporting requirements.  However, many trusts erroneously changed to tax exempt investments to avoid income reporting to consumers.  Until Missouri law changed in 2009, preneed sellers had the means to avoid all forms of individual account allocations.

Nebraska is another state that has a trusting requirement that lends itself to spreadsheet allocations. That state allows a partial distribution of trust income (to the extent the trust income exceeds the consumer price index).  The law was written in 1987, and contemplates the CPI increase being computed on the trust as a whole.  The law does not have a market value requirement, and nor does it contemplate non-guaranteed contracts.  As a consequence, the account increases could be allocated in conjunction with tax allocations.  There was no need for periodic allocations, which makes for easy administration by an Excel spreadsheet.

Spreadsheet based administration becomes cumbersome when the preneed trust provides for periodic allocations of payments, income, expenses and values.  Add non-guaranteed preneed to the mix, and the trustee must then consider whether the allocations are fair to the consumer.  As witnessed in Illinois and Wisconsin, the preneed program cut corners on trust administration by resorting to fixed investment returns.  Fixed returns avoided the complications of periodic allocations of income, expenses and value changes, and allowed the continued use of spreadsheet administration.  Funeral homes in those two states will be paying for the administrative corner-cutting for years to come.

In future posts, we will take a closer look at the administrative burdens of installment payments, non-guaranteed, tax allocations and market value fluctuations.

The Cassity Reply to Dismissal: Not Without a Pass for My Son

Posted in NPS/Lincoln, Uncategorized

Doug Cassity has filed a motion to modify the order dismissing him from the SDR’s civil lawsuit.  Mr. Cassity asserts that he and his family should be freed of the reign of terror and wrongdoing of the Texas regulators and their attorneys.  Seeking a dismissal with prejudice, Mr. Cassity seeks to have the SDR’s claims dropped permanently against himself and his son.  While the motion hints at various motivations that Mr. Cassity may have for testifying, he is not inclined to do so if the SDR can reinstate claims after his testimony is given.

The motion and its attachment were prepared by Mr. Cassity, and offer a glimpse of the man and his thought process.  Mr. Cassity offers a unique interpretation of the Missouri preneed law passed in 1982.  We will explore some of Mr. Cassity’s issues in subsequent posts, but the initial issue that caught our attention was the characterization of the Missouri law as a burial insurance statute and the reliance upon Missouri’s cemetery law for deferring trust deposits until a contract was paid in full.  We anticipate that Mr. Cassity is alluding to how endowed care contributions are administered under Chapter 214 because that law did not have a preneed trusting provision until well after the 1992 lawsuit was filed by the Attorney General.  Many Missouri cemeteries assert that an endowed care contribution is not required until the lot sale is completed.  Mr. Cassity asserts that NPS’ attorneys advised that the company could rely upon such an interpretation when addressing an ambiguity in Missouri’s Chapter 436.   Mr. Wittner may have a different recollection of that advice, which gives rise to one of Mr. Cassity’s motivations to testify.   The exhibit indicates Mr. Wittner is now cooperating with the SDR.

The motion reflects a desperate man that still seems prepared to say anything.  Dismissed from the civil suit, Mr. Cassity will no longer be provided pleadings filed with the court.  You could say that Doug has been put into ‘isolation’.  He has been cut off from a legal proceeding that continues to put his son at risk.  There may be no saving himself from the ‘reign of terror’, but we will have to wait and see if the SDR is prepared to offer up Brent for the truth.

Plaintiff’s Star Witness: Doug Cassity

Posted in Insurance Funded, NPS/Lincoln, Preneed Tax, Trust Funded, Uncategorized

The NPS civil trial is scheduled for trial in February 2015, and the SDR’s strategy took a twist when her litigation team filed a motion to dismiss Doug Cassity as a defendant in the lawsuit.  The dismissal probably signals the SDR’s intent to use Mr. Cassity’s testimony.  Now convinced that Mr. Cassity does not have hidden funds that exceed the restitution required by the criminal conviction, the SDR will seek to use his testimony against the various bank defendants. It may not matter whether he is a cooperative witness. Consequently, Mr. Cassity’s testimony could have ramifications for fiduciaries and insurance companies that do business in Missouri, and the regulators who supervise the state’s preneed trusts.

As seller of trust funded preneed contracts, NPS directed the trustees to follow an investment advisor selected by NPS.  That investment advisor then directed the trustees to purchase insurance policies issued by a related company (Lincoln Memorial Life).  The trustees may have also followed the directions of NPS and Lincoln Memorial Life regarding the reporting of trust income.

How far did Missouri law allow the trustee to follow the seller’s instructions with regard to investments, administration and taxation of a preneed trust?  To what extent did the trustees owe fiduciary duties to funeral home providers and preneed contract purchasers?  Will the results of the trial have implications to preneed fiduciaries in other states?

Preneed insurance companies understand the need to offer consumer options, and some have begun to offer hybrid trust programs.  Consumer payments are deposited to a trust pursuant to a contract that requires the trustee to purchase insurance at some future date.  This affords the consumer flexibility in making payments until the insurance is purchased.  The trustee will take a Section 685 election to avoid income reporting to the consumer until the insurance is purchased.  When the contract beneficiary dies, the trustee will collect insurance proceeds pursuant to IRC Section 101 and pay the seller upon proof of performance.  For so long as the trust owns an insurance policy, the seller can anticipate a constant, albeit low, trust return.

For these programs, the NPS civil trial could either clarify or redefine the duties owed by trustees to consumers and third party funeral home providers regarding insurance investments.  Did the NPS trustees have a duty to look behind Mr. Cassity’s polished presentation before purchasing insurance?  Was this a one and done determination of prudence, or was the determination required with each purchase of an insurance contract?  For contracts sold after SB1, there is also the question of whether the investment of trust funds in an insurance product complies with the prudent investor rule, and its diversification requirement.  What was the diversification requirement under the old prudent man standard?

Must the bank also determine the correct taxation of the insurance product when held in trust?  When trusts rushed to insurance products to avoid Rev.Rul. 87-127, there was no Section 685.  Rev.Rul. 87-127 afforded trusts the legal authority to treat the purchaser as grantor, and thus claim taxation pursuant to IRC Section 101.  What happened when NPS rolled over a seller trust that had a Section 685 election in force?  Were the insurance proceeds then taxable?

Mr. Cassity’s testimony may well influence whether trustees can deflect these liability issues back to the seller and the sponsoring insurance company.

Talk of a Lifetime: Restarting the Prearrangment Process

Posted in Non-guaranteed, Preneed, Preplanning, Uncategorized

One message that can be taken from the FAMIC’s Talk of a Lifetime campaign is that funeral directors need to re-think their prearrangement procedures.  Perhaps too much emphasis has been given to preneed, and not enough to the planning process.  Prearrangement marketing and procedures have often been crafted by the funeral home’s preneed funding agent.  What went unspoken in the MBJ article was the impact of poor investment performance on funeral directors’ motivation to promote preneed.  Insurance and trusts are not keeping pace with the costs to perform those contracts.  All funeral directors understand the need to engage families in the talk of a lifetime, but many are not happy with their preneed funding options. Those directors may be reluctant initiating a conversation that will ultimately lead to the topic of preneed.

Preneed Contract Holders: the lonely 5%

Posted in Guaranteed, Non-guaranteed, Preneed, Preneed Development, Preplanning, Uncategorized

The Memorial Business Journal recently reported on findings from the NFDA’s 2014 Consumer Awareness and Preferences Study.   Some of the findings may not come as much of a surprise to funeral directors, such as consumer demands are changing.  But, findings regarding how many respondents have made efforts to prearrange, and prepay, for funerals were surprising.  The article reported that only 19% of Study respondents had made prearrangements for themselves.  According to the article, prearrangement meant decisions and communications regarding the respondent’s final arrangement preferences.  Of those 19% who had participated in prearranging, only 26% had actually made some form of prepayment towards their final arrangement.  As one commentator to the article points out, only 5% of the Study respondents have purchased a preneed funeral contract.  (These statistics seem much lower than those reported by industry sources ten years ago.)

Of the individuals who have prearranged but not prepaid, the article reports the main reasons for not doing so include:

  • Estate or life insurance will cover the costs
  • Can’t afford to prepay
  • The funeral arrangement is not a priority
  • I don’t want a funeral.

Respondents gave similar reasons for not even attempting to prearrange their own funeral.

In an effort to address the need to prearrange, The Funeral and Memorialization Information Council have initiated the “Have the Talk of a Lifetime” campaign.  Members to the sponsoring organizations can access the FAMIC website for more information and documents.

As the campaign is successful in getting funeral directors and families engaged in the talk of their lifetime, the funeral home will still need to address consumer affordability.  On that issue, one commentator offered the observation of how the industry has steered the consumer to paying for the purchase price upfront.  He went on to suggest consumers need payment options.  We agree with his following comments questioning the mixed messages respondents gave concerning the value of price protections.  For too long, the industry has relied on “cost savings” to sell a preneed contract.  Even with an installment payment option, many older consumers cannot afford the required monthly payment.  Without a non-guaranteed contract option, many of these talks will still end in a direct cremation.

We encourage funeral directors to maintain the memberships in the FAMIC organizations, and to subscribe to the Memorial Business Journal.

Cemetery Care Fund Reports: The Operator’s Vicarious Liability

Posted in Cemeteries, Fiduciary, Reporting

Typically, the standard by which a cemetery is judged to be abandoned is whether the grass is getting cut.  But for licensed cemeteries, some states’ laws may also include provisions to deem a cemetery abandoned when regulatory reports are not filed.   Care fund reports are intended to inform the cemetery regulator whether the operator is making deposits to the fund, and how much the trustee is distributing to the operator.   When the reporting required for a cemetery license is neglected by the operator, state law may provide the cemetery regulator authority to bring legal action to declare the cemetery abandoned even though the grass has been cut regularly.  The purpose for such authority is to enable the regulator to determine if the care fund is being depleted by the operator, and to bring action to preserve the fund.

Kansas has had such authority for many years, but an annual reporting system meant the Secretary of State’s office was viewing information that was 15 months old (if operators filed their reports timely and accurately).  When the Kansas cemetery law was amended in 2012, the operator’s annual report was replaced with monthly reporting required from both the operator and the trustee.  The impact of the new reporting requirements were somewhat negated by a change to the abandonment provisions (requiring a proceeding to prove both that reports were not filed and that the grass had not been cut for a year).

In a compromise sought by the Kansas Cemetery Association, the reporting requirements were changed from monthly to quarterly, and the abandonment provisions were changed back to allow abandonment be sought under either condition.  HB 2172 will take effect on July 1st.

While regulators want to determine that care fund contributions are being made when required, recent disciplinary proceedings have been the result of care fund trustees making improper distributions.   Consequently, the Kansas law requires cemetery trustees to file reports directly with the Secretary of State.  Those reports include the determination of distributable income for care funds.   A trustee’s failure to file its quarterly reports could trigger an abandonment proceeding under Section 17-1366.

Kansas’ trustee filings are intended to avoid a situation similar to that reported on the discipline page of the Missouri Office of Endowed Care Cemetery, where a St. Louis cemetery agreed to return almost $190,000 of care fund distributions.

The Fed’s Tapering Plan: A Bumpy Road for Death Care Trusts?

Posted in Compliance, Investments, Master Trusts, Uncategorized

It has been almost ten years since the return on Government bonds fell below 5%.  But bond returns did not hit bottom until four years later when the sub-prime mortgage market collapsed.  Those conditions threatened the nation’s credit markets, and so, in 2008, the Federal Reserve Board initiated a stimulus program involving the purchase of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed bonds.  For almost six years, the Fed’s stimulus program supplied demand for low interest debt instruments that did not meet most investors’ objectives.  Last fall, the Fed announced its plan to taper the stimulus program by reducing the Federal Government’s purchase of bonds.  While the Fed has taken the position that interest rates may stay low even as unemployment numbers decline, many investment analysts believe rising interest rates are a matter of time.  The rate at which interest rates climb could have a significant financial impact on many death care trusts.

A decade of low yield Government bonds forced many fixed income investors to look elsewhere for returns.  A significant segment of that market includes 401K administrators who manage accounts for retirees. Death care trusts constitute another major investor in Government bonds.  Death care trusts and 401K plans share two crucial investment goals: income and security.  With more baby boomers hitting retirement age, death care trusts will face increasing competition for Government bonds when rates begin to climb.  That demand may play a role in how fast interest rates could rise.

If interest rates experience a gradual increase beginning over the next few years, death care trusts may be able to adapt with little market value loss.  But if interest rate increases rise quickly, the bond holdings of death care trusts could incur significant market value losses if the funds are not actively managed.

When interest rates do rise, bonds with the longer terms will feel the greatest impact from declining values.  The longer a bond’s maturity, the greater its risk is to market value loss when newer bonds with higher yields are issued.  Consequently, the safe and secure investment favored by some states’ death care laws, the long term Government bond, could actually pose a serious risk in terms of value decline.

Some investors can manage market value loss by holding individual bonds to maturity, but this is not an attractive option for preneed trusts that are required to base performance distributions on market value.  Holding an ‘impaired’ bond to maturity would result in a small portion of unrealized value losses being incurred with each contract performed.  In contrast to equities, market value decline of a long term bond will endure for so long as interest rates exceed that bond’s return yield.

Another strategy against bond investment losses would be to keep a substantial portion of trust investments in cash equivalents.  The return on such funds will increase with higher interest rates but there are downsides to this strategy.  Cash equivalents cannot keep pace with inflation, and the trust will lose ground to rising costs of preneed contract performance during the wait for interest rates to rise.

Bonds may be affected most directly when the Fed raises interest rates, but equities aren’t necessarily immune to the Fed’s actions. Companies that did not take advantage of low interest rates by issuing bonds may see their borrowing costs increase, which could cause their stock value to decline. As interest rates become competitive with the return on stocks, the investment demand for equities could also decline.

Fund managers acknowledge that the Fed’s response to the sub-prime mortgage crisis has created a unique investment environment that is difficult to predict.  Preneed fiduciaries accustom to a conservative investment philosophy now face the challenge of how to implement new strategies efficiently and quickly to multiple trusts, many of which may be relatively small.  For one fiduciary client, such circumstances prompted the implementation of a common trust fund.  Another fiduciary client implemented an investment plan to diversify all of its preneed trusts. In the absence of proactive investment management, the next few years could witness an erosion in the value of many preneed trusts.