Death Care Law Blog
A False Sense of Security: the hold harmless for investment oversight
We previously discussed how the funeral home or cemetery assumes most of a preneed trust’s investment risk when selling a guaranteed preneed contract, and therefore should be afforded a role in the trust’s investment decisions (Fund Managers: Is Your O&E Coverage Current?). But in that same post, we were careful to point out that there are no absolutes. More funeral homes are switching to non-guaranteed preneed. And, a certain percentage of guaranteed preneed contracts are also re-written at death when the family switches funeral homes or revises the prearranged funeral (or burial) arrangement. Yet, preneed fiduciaries seem to ignore these facts when relying upon uniform trust code provisions for their authority to exchange investment powers for a hold harmless agreement.
Death care fiduciaries first need to determine whether there are any conflicts between the applicable state death care law and the broader uniform trust code. Fiduciaries in states such as Missouri and Kansas are bound by statutes which require the trustee to retain investment oversight. Such conflicts will be reconciled in favor of the more specific death care law.
If the death care law is silent on investment delegation, the applicable uniform trust code may not necessarily authorize the trustee’s exculpation from investment oversight. Some states’ trust code conditions the fiduciary’s investment exculpation upon 1) the appropriateness of the trustee’s selection of the investment advisor, and 2) upon the notice given to trust beneficiaries. Illinois’ Trusts and Trustees Act is a good example of such a requirement. But too frequently, the fiduciary views the funeral home, or cemetery, as the sole beneficiary of the death care trust for purposes of both requirements.
Assuming notice could be given to each and every preneed contract purchaser, a court would likely evaluate the sufficiency of that notice from the perspective of the elderly preneed contract beneficiary. Would the average preneed purchaser understand the implications of the investment delegation? Or, could that purchaser effectively monitor the investment decisions made pursuant to the delegation? The fiduciary’s reliance on the uniform trust code for authority for exculpation under such circumstances should be deemed unreasonable. The validity of the exculpation may also hinge on the investment advisor’s assumption of applicable death care compliance requirements. If the agency agreement does not properly incorporate a death care law’s investment restrictions (or standard), the fiduciary has not exercised ‘reasonable care, skill and caution’ in establishing the scope and terms of the delegation. Yet, I hesitate to fault the fiduciary for trying. The strategy for seeking the exculpation is often in response to the unreasonable expectations of both the industry and its regulators.
As witnessed in California, regulators often interpret archaic preneed laws so as to argue that a ‘preneed contract is the equivalent of a savings account’. Those statutes reflect the preneed transaction from a generation ago. By applying that law out of the current context, a fiction is used to establish a standard that all fiduciaries could fail. The regulator’s position seeks to make the fiduciary a guarantor of the purchaser’s deposits to trust. The reality is that every trust investment has risk, even our government’s bonds. This exposure is applicable regardless of whether the preneed contract is guaranteed or non-guaranteed.
On the other side of the table, the industry is coming to demand that the trust offset more than just the costs of performing the preneed contract. Lagging membership revenues are an issue for many state associations. The mortgage crisis hit many preneed trusts, and preneed sellers expect those losses to be recovered without additional risk. Greater trust returns are also needed to offset the cremation trend. Of course, the asset management required for higher returns comes at a greater cost to the trust.
The reality is that the industry will continue to be request better returns from the death care trust. As with other trusts, the circumstances may dictate that as expectations rise, a fiduciary may best discharge its duties by delegating the investment responsibilities to an investment advisor. As discussed in the linked law review article, the model uniform code should be used to support the delegation of investment duties. But, in contrast to the classic trust situation, the death care trust is a creature of statute, which has the consumer’s protection as its purpose. While the preneed seller may be allowed to step into the settlor’s shoes for purpose of authorizing the delegation, the seller cannot override the preneed statute by exculpating the fiduciary from investment liabilities. At a minimum, the fiduciary needs to stand ready to override investments that are unsuitable or clearly imprudent. The two largest preneed scandals involved investments which were clearly unsuitable for the death care trust. Despite what Merrill Lynch may argue, I doubt any corporate fiduciary would have found the key man insurance policy to have been suitable for investment for a preneed trust. And if R.S.Mo. Section 436.031 had been written differently, NPS’ Missouri fiduciaries would have sought more information about the insurance transactions they were directed to make.
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