The Federal Reserve’s December 17th decision to cut its interest rate to less than a quarter of a percent is meant to encourage investors back into the stock market. But for many cemeteries, the prospect of depressed interest rates will have dire consequences to endowed/perpetual care trusts that are subject to state laws which limit or restrict equity investments.
State laws have historically imposed conservative investment standards upon endowed care funds to ensure preservation of the trust corpus. However, the bull markets experienced during the past decade often came at the expense of bond returns and other fixed income investments. With stagnant returns, cemeteries in states such as Michigan and Missouri have been seeking law changes to allow endowed care trusts to diversify for growth and larger distributions.
In 2006, a straightforward approach was introduced in the Michigan legislature. HB 6254 would have allowed an endowed care trust to distribute 50% of its accumulated net capital gains to the cemetery operator. However, that bill got lost in the turmoil of the Clayton Smart fraud. Instead, Michigan is now on the road to a more complex approach to diversification that incorporates the Prudent Investor Rule and oversight governed by rules and regulations to be promulgated by the Cemetery Commissioner.
Some of Missouri’s cemeteries introduced the unitrust concept to legislative negotiations held in 2007, and then again in Chapter 214 hearings held this past summer. That proposal would allow the cemetery operator to make an election to require the trust to make an annual fixed distribution of between 3 to 5% of the trust’s value. Missouri’s cemetery law (Chapter 214) lacks a clear definition of “income”, and regulators have taken contradictory positions over the years about whether capital gains may be treated as income to be distributed to the cemetery operator. In an attempt to clarify this ambiguity, the cemeteries turned to Missouri’s Uniform Trust Code and RSMo Section 469.411 to provide a clear standard for income, to promote diversification and to provide cemetery operators greater distributions. But in doing so, the proponents have ignored certain realities, and the controversies that surround the unitrust concept.
Many endowed care trusts are too small to effectively diversify for a fixed distribution of 5%, and proponents have fought alternatives that would grant the trustee authority to reduce distributions below 3%. The proposal would also restrict a trustee’s authority to make income and principal adjustments, a crucial element of the Missouri law.
In view of the current financial environment, cemeteries need the authority to diversify endowed/perpetual care funds. But, a balance needs to be struck between fostering growth in the trust and meeting the cemetery operator’s income needs for maintenance and care. Finding that balance should not be left to the unitrust concept, and faith in the stock market.