In a motion to convert the Wisconsin Master Trust from a preneed trust to a liquidating trust, the Receiver outlined to the court why the trust cannot keep its promises to consumers and comply with Wisconsin’s preneed law. Section 445.125 restricts preneed funeral trusts to depository accounts, and CD returns won’t even pay the Master Trust’s operating expenses (even after the Receiver has dramatically reduced those expenses). The WMT must diversify its investments just to meet its existing obligations, and to do so the Receiver proposes to transform the trust and take it out from underneath Section 445.125. This could mean that the Association may never regain control of the WMT, and that would deprive Wisconsin’s smaller operators a realistic alternative to insurance funding. Legislation is needed to replace Section 445.125 with the Prudent Investor Rule, but the Association faces a hostile cemetery industry and critical independents. It was only two years ago that the Association relied upon WMT fees to fund the fight to defeat cemetery legislation. With the cemetery industry seeking to re-introduce its legislation, the WFDA faces a situation of playing the spoiler role again while needing to explore all possible avenues to legislation that would preserve their ability to regain control of the WMT.
The jury did not buy the Wulf defense, and now the former NPS fund manager faces a much, much longer prison term than Doug Cassity. To get a better understanding of the positions taken by the prosecution and the defense, we will seek briefs and jury instructions. However, the US Attorney’s press release gives some hints at what arguments were used to persuade the jury. The second paragraph of the press release states:
Wulf was appointed in the 1980's to serve as the independent investment advisor to the preneed funeral trusts established pursuant to Missouri statutes by National Prearranged Services, Inc. (“NPS”). As the trusts’ advisor, Wulf was responsible for protecting, investing and managing the trusts’ assets, which included more than $150 million paid by customers who were told their funds would be kept safe until the time of need.
Two words jump out at this author: protecting and managing. The US Attorney argued that the fund manager had duties beyond providing investment advice. So, when NPS requested his consent to certain trust distributions, Mr. Wulf’s duty to protect and manage the trust assets required actions that he did not perform. At first blush, the prosecutor’s standard for the death care fund manager would seem substantially higher than compliance with either the prudent man rule or the prudent investor rule.
A Missouri preneed auditor recently requested an explanation from a client why certain accounts were underfunded. The handful of accounts were “underfunded” by varying amounts of a few dollars to twenty dollars. The common fact with each was an initial deposit or substantial deposit in the month preceding the Federal Chairman’s remarks that sent the investment markets tumbling. The conservative government bond was especially vulnerable.
It is inevitable that preneed auditors have to look beyond whether the consumer’s payments made it to the trust. But, preneed trusts cannot remain parked in Govies and provide operators the return they need to keep pace with rising costs. A diversified trust will have market fluctuations. The challenge for auditors will be distinguishing normal investment fluctuations from excessive fees or impaired assets.
David Wulf may stand alone in the crosshairs of the criminal prosecutors, but his fate will impact the NPS preneed trustees (and possibly other registered investment advisors who manage death care funds).
Mr. Wulf had a situation that is unique from what existed in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Tennessee, but is familiar to other death care funds. Mr. Schainker was an employee of Merrill Lynch, which proved to be the deep pocket for the IFDA losses. The Hull brothers were employees of Smith Barney, which has been alluded to by the WFDA Receiver as one of those parties with liability exposure. (The same Smith Barney that had relationships with Mark Singer, the Clayton Smart advisor.) But, Mr. Wulf’s name has not been associated with any Wall Street brokerage firm. Rather, he seems to have been an ‘independent’ asset manager who relied upon his own reputation (or connections) to obtain clients, and only bound by the duties imposed by the type of securities license that he possessed, Missouri law and the contract he had with NPS and the preneed trustee. Knowing that Mr. Wulf has shallow pockets, prosecutors will seek to define the investment advisor’s duties under Missouri such that Mr. Wulf had responsibilities to both funeral homes and consumers. For this to be something other than an academic exercise, the government attorneys must show that NPS’ preneed trustees also shared Mr. Wulf’s duties to the funeral homes and consumers. If the government attorneys prove successful, preneed trustees that have delegated fund management should take note.
In a post made June 30th, we discussed how the strategy behind the Wisconsin settlement proposal makes sense. But, a significant percentage of funeral homes have yet to sign on to the settlement. In terms of the Master Trust’s liabilities to consumers, funeral homes with 30% of those contracts are holding out. While both the Receiver and the WFDA’s attorney are putting a positive spin on the situation, the Receiver has gone public through his website to further pressure the dissenting funeral homes. Stressing consumer protection, the Receiver’s website lists the funeral homes that have, and have not, accepted the settlement and explains that:
Under this agreement, funeral homes that sign the settlement will ensure that their customers receive the benefits promised them under their burial agreements and, in exchange, will be protected from possible further court action.
An implicit message that can be taken from this statement is that a dissenting funeral home is not willing to promise that their customers will receive the benefits promised them under the burial contracts. For most funeral directors, it is not a matter of keeping their commitment to the consumers. Accordingly, we can’t help but wonder whether some of the dissenting funeral homes are expressing the same concerns raised by IFDA funeral homes regarding the settlement agreement brokered by Merrill Lynch.
Yes, the funeral homes wanted to recover as much in damages as they could, but they did not trust Merrill Lynch to find a way out of the hole it had created. Merrill Lynch did not want to be trustee of the IFDA master trust, and that was more than apparent to many Illinois funeral homes.
The Wisconsin law that restricts preneed funeral trusts to depository accounts cuts both ways for the Receiver. While it provides a clear standard for holding fund managers and fiduciaries in breach of their duties, the law also restricts the Receiver’s options for improving the WMT’s investment performance. What the Wisconsin Master Trust needs is legislation to expand the permissible investments for preneed trusts, but the Receiver’s job description does not include being a lobbyist for the WMT.
Several factors make it difficult for the WFDA to sponsor such legislation, and as a result, some funeral homes may rather ‘bail’ out of the situation.
In prior posts we have documented certain similarities between the old IFDA master trust and the Wisconsin master trust, and our Illinois clients have expressed sympathy for their colleagues to the north. But, key differences exist between the two master trusts, and the recent settlement agreement offered to Wisconsin funeral homes is an indication that the WMT receiver has an appreciation for those differences, and is seeking to avoid the litigation expenses that were ultimately incurred by Illinois funeral homes.
Indecision and missteps by the Illinois Comptroller resulted in competing lawsuits by consumers and multiple groups of funeral homes. The Comptroller compounded the situation further by forcing Merrill Lynch to assume trusteeship over the key man policies it had sold to the IFDA. In contrast, the Wisconsin receiver has adopted a strategy to negotiate settlements with key parties by first forging a settlement with funeral homes. The proposed funeral home settlement is called a Pierringer Agreement, and is intended to pave the way for negotiated settlements when multiple defendants with varying degrees of fault. As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, certain parties may want to resolve their liability exposures through a settlement, but are unwilling to so long as individual funeral homes could subsequently bring their own lawsuit.
Consequently, the receiver is seeking to gain leverage with those key parties by forcing the hand of the individual funeral home. As the reference article explains, it is a necessary strategy to breaking the settlement logjam.
The Nebraska Department of Insurance released its legislative proposal for revising the preneed law that has been in effect since 1987. Written during a time when interest rates were high, the Nebraska law imposed a CPI accrual but allowed income in excess of that accrual to be distributed to the preneed seller. The law also required an annual report of the trust (as opposed to individual contracts). What evolved was a reporting system that was dependent upon the trustee’s tax accounting. In an era when a trustee invested exclusively in bonds, and held them to maturity, the trust’s tax cost basis would track trust deposits and accrued income fairly closely. But, the Nebraska system doesn’t work so well in an environment that requires investment diversification and the risk of value fluctuations. Nor does the system work for the trust that remained in fixed income investments through the 2008 mortgage crisis. In recent years, fixed income returns have not kept pace with the CPI requirement. The reluctance to diversify turns the seller into a Fed watcher. Any time Mr. Bernanke hints at an increase in the interest rates, the seller’s bond portfolio value lurches lower. Yet, the NE law allows the seller to be paid trust deposits plus accrued CPI on the performance of the preneed contracts. So, the DOI is seeking to introduce market value to the Nebraska preneed industry
If you haven’t noticed, there has been some turnover among the associations’ preneed fund managers. With the threat of additional litigation in Wisconsin, this trend could continue. But not all of the turnover has been as publicized as what we have seen in Illinois and Wisconsin. After 20 years at the helm, Merrill Lynch recently gave notice to the Michigan Funeral Directors Association of its resignation. There are no search protocols for preneed fund managers, and so Michigan borrowed from the retirement fund community by publishing a request for proposal (RFP). While the MFDA should be commended in their effort to bring transparency to their program’s asset management, they missed (or ignored) an opportunity to shift more investment responsibilities to the financial industry. Instead of using FINRA Rule 2111 (“know your client”) to their advantage, the MFDA structured the RFP to perpetuate (and extend) the funeral director’s controlling role in investment decisions.
Hidden investment charges have been ‘part of business’ in the death care industry for decades, and this author has contemplated whether ERISA’s fee disclosure requirements could ever be incorporated into preneed trusts by the Federal Trade Commission. The Michigan RFP focused on the same ERISA fee disclosure requirements, which could lead one to assume that association’s leaders did not want to make the same mistake again. The Michigan RFP also raised another ERISA concept worthy of the preneed industry’s consideration: the 401K approach to investment by individual contract. We too have wondered why larger programs have not looked at data from individual contracts and the sponsoring funeral homes to build an investment options matrix.
But, the Michigan RFP can be faulted for cutting off the diligence requirements of FINRA Rule 2111. To insulate the Association from solicitations, the RFP provided summary information about the program and required all inquiries to go through an ERISA consultant. Prospective fund managers were required to submit investment strategies on limited facts and without direct communications to the Association. It is understandable that the Association would want to narrow the field before initiating an exchange of confidential information with prospective managers, but the screening of candidates should have preceded the request for investment strategies. Subsequent to the screening, the MFDA should then have provided detailed information pursuant to a confidentiality agreement. Under FINRA 2111, this sequence would have expanded the fund manager’s diligence responsibilities regarding investment strategy recommendations. The nature of the questions posed by the candidates would also have helped the MFDA in its assessment of the candidates. Instead, the RFP narrowed the fund manager’s diligence to an old investment strategy with a history of mixed results and challenges.
Within the context of ERISA retirement funds, RFPs may take a formula approach to finding a replacement fund manager. But the preneed industry is fragmented by 50 different state laws, and by program issues such as whether non-guaranteed contracts are sold, the association’s role as a seller versus an agent, investment restrictions, and trusting percentages. Injecting preneed asset management with a dose of ERISA could help to discourage hidden fees and improve the quality of fund managers, but the industry also needs an alternative to the strategy of offering funeral directors three investment options to choose from.
Both the Memorial Business Journal and the Funeral Service Insider commented last week on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s February 7th article regarding the former executive director of the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association. Several issues were raised that should be included in future industry debate, and in particular, I would agree with Mr. Isard’s questions whether association executives are qualified to manage a master trust. But the following comments beg an immediate response:
“The whole situation with [the] Wisconsin Preneed Trust went off the rails when the goal shifted from trusting funds to investing funds.”
“The assumption that these trust funds are in the investment business is a mistake. We’re not. We’re in the trust business. From my view, that is a presumption of a preservation of principle. With a trust, you have an obligation to be prudent.”
Those comments suggest that trusting funds and investing funds are somehow mutually exclusive. While the comments may reflect the views of much of the death care industry, they also reflect a failure to understand the fiduciary’s duties. When entrusted with the money of another, the fiduciary has a duty to invest those funds consistent with the purposes of the trust and the interests of the trust beneficiaries. The fiduciary’s investment duties are governed by other laws, and a majority of our states have adopted the Prudent Investor Act. Wikipedia provides the following explanation of that Act:
In enacting the Uniform Prudent Investor Act, states should have repealed legal list statutes, which specified permissible investments types. (However, guardianship and conservatorship accounts generally remain limited by specific state law.) In those states which adopted part or all of the Uniform Prudent Investor Act, investments must be chosen based on their suitability for each account's beneficiaries or, as appropriate, the customer. Although specific criteria for determining "suitability" does not exist, it is generally acknowledged, that the following items should be considered as they pertain to account beneficiaries:
• financial situation;
• current investment portfolio;
• need for income;
• tax status and bracket;
• investment objective; and
• risk tolerance.
The majority of preneed trusts involve a single seller/provider and guaranteed preneed contracts. Under such circumstances, the funeral home operator has assumed the investment risk when the preneed contract is performed as written. Fiduciaries (and fund managers) have viewed the operator as the account beneficiary for purposes of the Prudent Investor Act. But depending upon state law, and whether the contract is ‘re-written’ at the time of death, the preneed purchaser may bear the investment risk. Accordingly, the fiduciary and fund manager should not completely ignore the preneed purchaser as the account beneficiary for purposes of the Prudent Investor Act.
Neither fiduciaries nor fund managers want to bring the preneed purchaser into the Prudent Investor equation for obvious reasons. But are suitability of investments for two that dissimilar? We would suggest not if the objective is to have investment performance track the prearrangement’s purchase price increases. As we noted in a March 2010 post about the IFDA master trust, the purchaser of a non-guaranteed contract was unhappy because the return on her non-guaranteed contract (1.7%) did not keep pace with the price increases of her planned funeral (4.2%).
Determining who to include as an account beneficiary in the Prudent Investor equation only gets more complicated when the preneed trust is an association master trust with dozens, or hundreds, of funeral home operators. If the master trust includes a healthy percentage of non-guaranteed contracts, the number of account beneficiaries could swell to the thousands. If the association is not the preneed seller (as is the case in Missouri, but not Illinois), what interest does the association have in the trust so as to justify being considered an account beneficiary? There are arguments in support of the association being such a beneficiary, but can those interests ever outweigh the funeral operator and the non-guaranteed contract purchaser?
One could argue that the Wisconsin Master Trust was never fully on the rails. The Association determined early on that a depository account could not keep up with rising funeral costs. Rather than seek legislation that would clarify the trust’s investment authority, the Association leadership sought regulatory permission to allow the master trust to embark on the path of investment diversification. The program derailed only after the executive director enmeshed his personal objectives with those of the association and then conspired with the fund managers to treat the association as the master trust’s primary account beneficiary.
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.
Fiduciary Partners, the corporate fiduciary for the Wisconsin and Illinois master trusts, broke its silence this week with a statement to the Funeral Service Insider. The statement was made in response to criticisms previously reported by FSI, and reflects the receiver and fiduciary working together to get their “message” out and avoid the kind of litigation that has hamstrung the IFDA, its membership and the Illinois funeral industry.
FSI commentators used Fiduciary Partners’ link to the two states to drive home with funeral directors various preneed problems* including the management and investment of preneed funds, and the state of the guaranteed preneed contract and its impact on funeral pricing practices. While the issues need to be incorporated into a national dialog, Fiduciary Partners interpreted the FSI report as encouraging Illinois and Wisconsin funeral directors to assign blame to Fiduciary Partners. Consequently, Fiduciary Partners and the receiver felt compelled to respond.
As reported in a prior post, the WFDA leadership had muzzled Fiduciary Partners with a very strict confidentiality provision through an amendment to the master trust. Accordingly, the statement given to FSI has been made with the receiver’s approval, and could be taken as having the WFDA’s endorsement.
To neutralize litigation over the trustee’s role in administering investments, Fiduciary Partners and the receiver sought to clarify that the company had a very limited role that never included the management of investments. The message goes on to reinforce the need for Fiduciary Partners to continue to provide administrative functions related to individual contract accounting and performance payments. The statement also conveys a tacit acknowledgement of the WFDA’s secrecy, with Fiduciary Partner’s commitment to a new transparency.
It is inevitable that comparisons will be made between Wisconsin and Illinois, and to conclude that litigation may also be inevitable. However, one stark difference exists between the two situations: Illinois funeral directors faced a recalcitrant board that refused to acknowledge and correct its mistakes. That leaves the question whether Wisconsin funeral directors will bring litigation to recover damages. As one FSI commentator points out, damages will be difficult to measure when the association reported inflated numbers (through the guaranteed rate of return). And as the other commentator points out, member funeral directors need to take responsibility for hiring executives and fund managers that are competent and professional. It was their hire of an inexperienced executive that ultimately directed the use of trust funds to establish an insurance company.
The multi-million dollar question to be asked is what if Fiduciary Partners had responsibility for investment oversight? Would the trustee have been able to check Mr. Peterson’s actions? In our next post, we will look at the hold harmless provisions so popular in the preneed trust agreement.
*Reprinted from the Funeral Service Insider – October 29, 2012
**Reprinted from the Funeral Service Insider – November 5, 2012
To obtain a full copy of the Funeral Service Insider, contact www.funeralserviceinsider.com to subscribe.
In the days that followed the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association being placed into receivership, some of the WFDA’s sister associations were quick to point out they had ‘checks and balances’ that would protect consumers’ funds from the problems that tripped up the Wisconsin Funeral Trust. As we reported in our last post, a crucial ‘check and balance’ missing from the WFT was investment oversight. The fact that a trust has a corporate trustee does not necessarily mean that fiduciary has responsibility for monitoring the prudence of the investments. Corporate fiduciaries often look to uniform trust codes for the authority to delegate investment responsibilities. If a grantor wishes to use an outside asset manager, general trust laws will accommodate those wishes. The problem with preneed trusts (and cemetery endowment funds) is that there is more than one “grantor” to the preneed trust.
We have previously stated our support for allowing a relationship between preneed seller and a qualified fund manager. However, the fiduciary must provide a ‘check and balance’ to that relationship by maintaining responsibility for the investments. The ‘scandals’ from Missouri, Illinois, California and Wisconsin stem from a lack of investment oversight. Missouri’s regulators responded to NPS with a law that precluded any relationship between the advisor and the seller. Appropriately, the Missouri association obtained revisions to allow an agency relationship between its fund manager and the trustee. However, the Missouri law does not go far enough to require the disclosures we recommended in 2011. Funeral directors and consumers need to know that Missouri preneed fiduciaries ‘have their back’ when it comes to investment oversight.
Investment oversight is also a concern for cemetery regulators. Kansas’ cemetery regulators were dismayed to find that a corporate trustee had turned over the investment reigns to a Hutchinson cemetery operator. The operator hoped to cover declining revenues (and the failure to make trust deposits) with higher investment returns. For months, the operator attempted to hide the ball from the auditor, but eventually it was discovered that those investments had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The investment supervision issue is also a concern for Nebraska regulators. As they prep the death care industry for legislation in 2013, they raise this issue:
Seller’s Power to Direct Investments
A question has arisen regarding the seller’s ability to direct the trustee’s investment decisions. Specifically, should the seller be able to instruct the trustee to deposit or invest funds in securities that do not meet the trustee’s own investment guidelines?
If it is determined that the trustee should be free from the seller’s investment influence, section 12-1107 should be amended to reflect this fact.
In what may be a perfectly legal arrangement, Illinois funeral directors have handed off investment oversight to their new fund managers. The master trust instrument carefully outlines the code provisions which authorize the delegation of investment authorities. But the document goes that extra step of exculpating the trustee from responsibilities for investment oversight. Where is the check and balance in that structure? Are the industry’s expectations so high that a trustee will not accept the fund without a hold harmless? If the industry does not establish its own ‘checks and balances’ with regard to investment supervision, the authority to participate in the investment decisions could be taken away.
Recent document disclosures are reflecting that several factors contributed to the WFDA’s master trust deficiency (and the appointment of a receiver). Certain of those factors relate to the fees paid to fund managers and the association’s sponsorship charges. Those factors are relevant to other association master trusts, and we will explore them in subsequent posts. However, the ‘straw’ that broke this camel’s back came straight from the National Prearranged Services’ playbook.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported that it was the formation of a life insurance company by the WFDA’s Wisconsin Funeral Trust that prompted a regulatory audit by the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance. In 2009, the WFDA used the master trust to set up an insurance company to provide its members a preneed funding alternative to the trust. Wisconsin law requires 100% of the consumer payments to be deposited to trust. In contrast, insurance funding provides funeral homes commissions to offset the costs of a preneed program. This same reality led National Prearranged Services to form a life insurance company. NPS needed an insurance program in order to expand into 100% trusting states. To jumpstart that insurance program, NPS tapped its Missouri and Texas preneed trusts.
NPS exploited a provision of the Missouri law that exculpated the trustee from investment oversight when an independent investment advisor was appointed by the seller. Held harmless by state law, NPS trustees may not have looked further than the statements the seller provided. NPS then appointed an investment advisor that directed the trusts into policies issued by the sister insurance company. In a similar fashion, the WFDA amended its master trust agreement in 2009 to remove the trustee’s investment responsibilities and authorities, and to vest investment control in the fund manager of the WFDA’s choice. And to top that move off, the amendment made information about the trust and parties confidential. If the trustee was unhappy with the situation, it could resign, but it could not make “any public communication that may be reasonably considered derogatory or disparaging to the Association, the Trust, the successor Trustee or any party relating to the Trust.”
There are indications the WFDA funeral trust had been struggling for years to keep up with promised return. But, over the course of three years, the WFDA made radical changes that culminated in the formation of the insurance company. Who was the driving force behind those changes? When advice was sought in 2007 to allow the trust to diversify its assets, the legal opinion was directed to the WFDA executive director Scott Peterson, not the corporate fiduciary.
A short three and a half years ago, the funeral industry reeled from the collapse of National Prearranged Services and the emerging story of the Illinois Master Trust. The NFDA was slow to respond to the crisis, and when it did, this blog joined the criticism. Fast forward to September 2012, and the NFDA responds to the Wisconsin Master Trust controversy with the same guidelines.
Granted: associations are cumbersome organizations that are dependent on volunteer members.
Granted: changing the mindset of a membership that has been historically opposed to preneed will be difficult.
Granted: it is a matter of time before another state association master trust fails.
We need to augment the advice offered the NFDA in 2009: eliminate from your trust evaluation guidelines any suggestions that a guaranteed rate of return is permissible. The days of set rates of return or book/tax cost of account for distributions are over.
The fixed rate of return approach allowed the Wisconsin and Illinois programs to avoid investment transparency and individual account allocations of income and market value. But, providing investment transparency in terms of the investments held by the trust, and the rate of return, can be more complex that the NFDA guidelines suggest. It is not uncommon for three or more investment pools to be offered by a master trust program. Administrators may have different ways to provide transparency at the trust level, in terms of in investments held by the trust and their rates of returns.
Whatever procedure is followed, the end result should be a ‘mark to market’ that will allow an auditor to reconcile each individual preneed contract’s value to the individual funeral home account(s), and in the case of master trusts, each individual funeral home’s account(s) to the aggregate master trust market value.
When news of the Wisconsin receivership was made public, I anticipated some signs of support from other state associations. The strength of a professional relationship can be measured by the support given subsequent to a public indictment. But, when that support comes in the form of hackneyed advice, the accused is left to wonder about the relationship. It should not come as a surprise if the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association leadership was frustrated or angered with the National Funeral Directors Association or the New York Funeral Directors Association over the ‘advice’ given through trade journals.
When asked by the Funeral Service Insider for a response to the Wisconsin ‘scandal’, the NFDA recommended its model preneed law and referred members to its “Guidelines for Evaluating Preneed Trusts”. How would the model laws have avoided the Wisconsin scandal? Does the NFDA advocate investment standards that would permit diversification and the prudent investor rule? Would those model laws make the Wisconsin program more competitive with insurance companies?
If one were to review the NFDA’s Guidelines for Evaluating Preneed Trusts, you would find a section titled Rate of Return. That section includes questions about whether the preneed program provides guarantees about the rate of return on investments. It would be reasonable for the WFDA leadership to infer from the Guidelines that fixed or guaranteed rates of return are an acceptable method of master trust administration. So, that leadership has to be asking itself why they are facing a securities investigation by including that same guaranteed rate of return in preneed contract forms and consumer marketing materials. The WFDA leadership could have corrected its program and avoided the securities issues if those Guidelines had been revised years ago to recommend market value administration and the limitation, and disclosure, of the association fees charged to the trust.
The NYFDA association advises the funeral industry that state associations are uniquely well-positioned to deliver on preneed safety and security, and argues that competent executive directors and educated volunteer leaders can deliver what no other entity can. The NYFDA goes on to assert that return of principal is more important than return on principal, and that trust programs start to go off the rails when too much authority and oversight is handed over to third parties (that want to make money on the backs of funeral firms and consumers). What is the WFDA preneed committee (or other associations) to make of that advice? Are they to direct the trustee in making investments? Are they to ignore the demands of trust participants for higher returns? Are they to ignore the fact that New York is the only state to have laws that require 100% trusting and that bans insurance funded preneed? The reality is that state association preneed programs are under increasing pressure to improve investment returns. Unfortunately, associations are contributing to that pressure with the fees they are charging the trust.
During the past six years, four state sponsored programs have “crashed” due to fiscal problems and noncompliance. Minnesota, Illinois, California and Wisconsin all seemed to have respected executive directors and educated volunteer leaders. What roles did internal fees and outdated laws play in each situation? Would these associations have lost program participants (and the accompanying sponsorship fees) if they had provided more transparency regarding investments and internal fees?
I agree with Ms. McCullough that association sponsored master trusts are uniquely well-positioned to deliver on preneed safety and security. The problem is that too many have not delivered either safety or security. How many of these programs adhere too closely to Ms. McCullough’s advice? The affidavit that served as the tipping point for the appointment of the Wisconsin receiver paints a picture of a dominant association executive and an active and engaged volunteer board. Where were the compliance attorneys and the corporate fiduciary during the preneed committee meetings? Were they even invited? While there will be more pieces to the Wisconsin puzzle, what is available today suggests that the WFDA should have sought the input of “experts” instead of excluding them.
When news that the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association and its master trust had been put into receivership, I anticipated that the association may have fallen victim to a perfect storm: when an antiquated preneed law collides with a volatile investment market. But, subsequent news accounts are painting a bleak picture of poor planning and poor oversight.
The Wisconsin preneed funeral law alludes to trusts, but contemplates depository accounts. That is very consistent with the approach taken by most states. Accordingly, many original preneed laws provide very little statutory authority to the preneed fiduciary. Fiduciaries are forced to turn to general trust laws for guidance. If the fiduciary is not knowledgeable about the purpose of preneed contracts, crucial decisions are often deferred to the program sponsor.
Somewhere along the line, the WFDA program added a guaranteed return to its preneed contract. For a state that has a depository based law, that type of promise might seem appropriate enough. But, that promise of a return changed the consumer contract from a purchase of funeral goods and services to an investment contract. The WFDA program crossed a line established by the Securities Exchange Commission in “no action letters” issued to other sponsors of preneed programs (including various state associations).
Besting a certificate of deposit return may not have seemed to be too much of a risk to the fund managers, but they may not have foreseen the 2009 mortgage crisis. “Trapped” by the guaranteed return, the fund managers may have felt that they had little choice but to implement a more aggressive investment portfolio. But, if the program always had an aggressive investment policy, the fiduciary could have exposure for the oversight provided that policy.
If the firm employing the master trust’s fund manager seems familiar (Morgan Stanley Smith Barney), it could be from the litigation swirling around Mark Singer and Clayton Smart.
Preneed scandals in Illinois, Missouri, Texas, and California have state regulators moving to implement new audit procedures. But with new laws passed in the wake of NPS and state master trust problems, the frequency and scope of the future audit could change dramatically. It is no secret that the scope of the preneed audit in Missouri is work in progress. When asked how the audit was being revised for its licensees, Illinois regulators politely declined to provide their written guidelines. Regulators in Kansas and Nebraska are also evaluating their audit procedures. But, the legal battle being waged in California provides a glimpse of one regulator’s intent to change the scope of the preneed audit.
The Ninth and Tenth Causes of Actions from the California Attorney General’s lawsuit against the California Master Trust allege that defendants either failed to maintain, or to produce, the preneed records required by law and regulation. California Code of Regulations, title 16, Section 1267 sets out those records that must be maintained by the funeral home. The regulation dates back 30 years, and reflects a view of the preneed transaction that is no longer consistent with the view taken by the Attorney General, and with the direction of the audit and lawsuit.
In a nutshell, the regulation asks for records which are intended to confirm whether the preneed payments were deposited to trust. The underlying principal is that the preneed contract represents a sale that the funeral home will book to its GAAP financial records. The regulation defines the funeral home’s cash receipts journal and general ledger as preneed records. The requirements contemplate that the funeral home will book these sales and payments for compliance with income tax reporting. By requiring the financial books and records, the preneed auditor can then track a consumer payment from funeral home receipt to the preneed trust. While the funeral director might not fear the preneed regulator, he is not likely to hide the income from Uncle Sam.
However, the California litigation is not about money that didn’t make it to trust, it is about the administration of the trust assets. In attempting to investigate the administration of the trust, the preneed auditor went beyond what the regulation calls for. The best evidence of the expanding scope of the audit is the defendants' response letter to the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau audit findings. The response letter indicates that one funeral home was cited for failing to have the following records:
• All correspondence with the trust administrator
• Copies of contracts that provide services to the trust
• Records of administrative costs
• Records of administrative costs allocated among the trustee and its vendors
• The portfolio of trust investments
When questioned about its authority for the requests, the Bureau reply stated that the trustee failed to make available “complete financial records for all preneed contracts and arrangements”. This answer fails to clarify what trust and financial records the funeral home must maintain on its premises.
What seems to come through from the California litigation is that original approach to the audit, ensuring the funds made it to trust, and leaving trust oversight to the independent CPA and an opinion, failed the California consumer. But, could the Bureau have better protected the consumer if the financial records have been kept at the individual funeral homes? (No, not without additional guidelines on the management of master trusts and pooled accounts.) And even if such regulations existed, it would be expecting too much from the auditor whose duties entail visits to hundreds of the funeral homes.
While the field auditor is an important element of the preneed compliance program, the program has to include the administration of preneed trust. Does this mean the funeral director must maintain correspondence and records related to the trust’s administration? The best course of action would be to establish a file for all trust related documents and correspondence. With the increase of preneed portability and the sale of non-guaranteed contracts, the funeral director's reliance on the ‘guaranteed contract defense’ becomes more tenuous. In a limited sense, the funeral director is becoming a fund manager on behalf of the consumer.
Many state preneed regulators share the point of view that the payments made toward a preneed contract belong to the consumer until the prearranged funeral is provided. This perspective was adopted by the California Attorney General in its Eighth Cause of Action brought against the California Funeral Directors Association and its Master Trust. The AG criticizes the CFDA for investment decisions that are fairly representative of those taken by the industry as a whole.
Early on, the CMT relied upon bond funds that specialized in zero coupon government bonds. The AG points out that U.S. Treasury Bonds and similar bond funds outperformed the CMT at less risk and with lower fees.
When the bond market crashed in 2001, the CMT experienced substantial investment losses and changed investment course. The CMT began diversifying, and purchasing mortgaged back securities, foreign bonds and notes, corporate asset-backed securities and other types of securities. The AG criticizes these investments by stating “these types of investments are not insured bank accounts, are not bonds that are legal investments for commercial bank (sections 1001 et seq. of the Financial Code lists certain legal investments for commercial banks), are not government bonds, and do not comply with the Uniform Prudent Investor Act (as discussed below).”
The AG goes on to argue that the investment policies of the CMT should be set by the risk and return objectives of the preneed contract beneficiaries, and faults the defendants for having set investment policies based on their own needs.
Other states’ preneed regulators (and cemetery regulators) share the California AG’s point of view. It is common to hear a regulator characterize the preneed trust as a depository account or to express the belief the industry would be better off if preneed funding were left to the insurance companies. These regulators need to take the blinders off.
The CMT, like so many preneed trusts, went into tax exempt investments after 1988 because of Revenue Rul. 87-127. The Internal Revenue Service pushed for an income reporting method that proved impractical and burdensome. To compound the situation, the IRS applied the ruling retroactively to certain states. California was one of those states. Prior to the ruling, funeral homes had no reason to require the consumer’s social security number when selling a preneed contract. Consequently, many California trustees could not comply with the ruling with regard to existing contracts.
The ruling required grantor statements to be sent to consumers, and the consumers complained. So, funeral homes instructed their preneed fiduciaries to go into anything that didn’t require a grantor statement. While the CMT went to zero coupon bonds, the IFDA went into the poorly conceived key man insurance. Other trusts went into annuities. Various approaches were taken because the IRS could not provide reporting guidance once it changed the rules.
In stating that the preneed funds must be invested pursuant to the contract beneficiary’s objectives, the California AG has ignored the fact that a majority of these preneed contracts are probably guaranteed. Under that arrangement, the funeral home has assumed the investment risk. From a practical approach, how would the investment advisor determine the objectives of the thousands of preneed beneficiaries? In a prior post, this blog reported about an Illinois contract beneficiary’s complaint about the IFDA Master Trust. In contrast to the losses suffered by the member funeral homes, the beneficiary experienced a modest return on her non-guaranteed contract. Her complaint was that the return was not enough to keep up with rising funeral costs.
The California AG argument that the CMT must comply with the Prudent Investor Rule in a way that does not expose trust principal to risk is the equivalent to handcuffing both of the investment advisor’s hands behind his back.
Of the investment complaints made by the California AG, the one which would seem to merit the most attention would be the relationship between the former investment advisor and a CFDA board member. That CFDA board member also served as a trustee for one of the advisor’s funds, for which he received compensation. That relationship warrants an inquiry whether the relationship was disclosed and the compensation appropriate and reasonable.
The AG’s argument that the investment advisor must be independent from the seller is one shared by Missouri regulators. The Missouri regulators are quick to point to the abuses committed by NPS and its investment management firm. (See our post titled “The Zeal for Independence”). Those abuses were so bad that the Missouri legislature passed a provision prohibiting a relationship between the seller and the fund manager. This author thought the provision went too far. (See our post titled “Regulating Out of Context”). With the passage of SB 325, the Missouri Funeral Directors Association has convinced the Missouri legislature that it did go too far.
Regardless of whether the fund manager is a fiduciary employee or an independent investment advisor, that fund manager should appropriately look to the preneed seller for input about investment objectives. For the larger trust, the fiduciary and fund manager should adopt a written investment policy that, among other factors, considers the trust’s mix of guaranteed and non-guaranteed contracts. If the fund manager is an independent investment advisor, the relationship should be documented with an agreement that discloses all forms of compensation. Consistent with the SEC efforts to reform mutual funds, the disclosure should address any 12b-1 fees. The agreement with the fiduciary should also disclose all relationships the investment advisor has with the preneed seller.
To the extent the preneed contract is guaranteed, the regulator needs to recognize the seller’s economic interest in the trust’s performance. But, fiduciaries and sellers need to consider the growing number of non-guaranteed contracts and the possibility that the guaranteed contract may be serviced by a different funeral home. While the seller may have the prevailing economic interest, not all of the trust may be considered his for investment purposes.
A breakdown in communications between the CFDA and the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau has resulted in the California Attorney General filing a lawsuit that can be appropriately described as vitriolic. The “California lawsuit” could provide some valuable ‘what to avoid” lessons for regulators in other states.
In an unusual move, the Bureau went “public” last year by raising a number of issues with administration of the California Master Trust. Some of those issues did warrant an explanation. One issue involves the actions taken by the CFDA subsidiary in response to the 2000 market crash. The subsidiary implemented a plan to stabilize the master trust value after the collapse of a bond fund. Another issue regards the administration fees charged the master trust subsequent to the collapse of the bond fund. A third issue regards the subsidiary’s policy to pay a portion of the administration fees to participating funeral homes.
The CFDA countered with arguments of how its actions were within California law. Those arguments have merit, and were covered by this blog in July 2010. (See California Master Trust: serious missteps, but not another IFDA.) The CFDA proposed that the issues be reviewed in the context of relevant facts, having the Bureau apply thirty year old laws and regulations to the CMT’s circumstances. Instead, the California Attorney General adopted a “quick kill” strategy that employs a two prong attack: involve the consumer and apply the law strictly.
In taking the controversy to the consumer, the California AG has been disingenuous when using such terms as “conspiracy”, “concocted”, and “kickbacks”. In doing so, the AG may end up galvanizing the CMT membership, and getting anything but a quick kill.
The AG’s legal arguments are also somewhat disingenuous. As the title suggests, this blog entry will focus on the AG’s call for a truly independent trustee. In future entries, we will look at some of the AG’s other legal arguments.
In the “First Cause of Action” of the petition, the AG makes the argument for how the CFDA’s administrative subsidiary has assumed unlawful control over the preneed funeral trust. Granted, the CFDA may have gone too far in assuming control over the trustee’s appointment of agents (and discounted the interests of consumers with non-guaranteed contracts), but the AG ignores the fact the master trust consists of thousands of preneed contracts that originates in hundreds of funeral homes. This fact makes the fiduciary dependent upon the funeral home in a number of ways.
The trustee needs preneed contract data for accounting (much in the same way the regulator’s auditor is dependent on the same records to perform his job). As with other states’ master trusts, the association performed a vital role in providing crucial contract administration. Contrary to the AG’s citation to the California probate code, these are administrative functions the corporate fiduciary must delegate. The trustee cannot account for the preneed contract as a depository account.
The trustee also needs input when setting investment policies. The AG would suggest that the preneed trustee cannot look to the funeral home. This ignores that the vast majority of the preneed contracts are guaranteed, where the funeral home has assumed the risk of investment. It also flies in the face of the numerous “No Action Letters” issued by the Securities Exchange Commission.
The manner in which the trustee prepares trust tax returns impacts both the funeral home and consumer. The most efficient approach (Federal Form 1041QFT) has a cost to the funeral home. Consequently, the preneed fiduciary will want the funeral home’s approval.
The ‘independent preneed trustee’ may seem to be a quick and easy answer to regulators, but only if the courts ignore the facts and realities of administering a preneed trust.
Microsoft’s early efforts to force regular program updates were a nightmare. Like a gremlin that visited at night, the update often changed default settings that you never completely understood in the first place. Sometimes the update would impact the compatibility of other critical programs. To avoid the hassle of these updates, I toggled off the Microsoft updates for several years. And then when a drive failed, dozens and dozens of MS patches and updates had to be downloaded and installed, costing me time and expense.
The preneed regulatory systems set up by various state legislatures in the 1980’s have begun to crash for the same reason: a failure to update. Preneed has changed since the days when bonds paid double digit returns and preneed programs were the fad. California was no different from most states where preneed opponents outnumbered preneed proponents. Legislative compromises favored the traditional operators who opposed preneed, and the resulting law was disjunctive and confusing.
As time passed, more and more California funeral homes began to offer preneed. In most cases, it started as an accommodation to the consumer who sought to put funds aside. Eventually, competition not only drove all funeral homes to offer some form of preneed, it also drove them to factor preneed into their business plan. The investment markets also became more complex.
But, the California funeral industry left the preneed law update toggled off, and instead, stretched the law’s ambiguities the best it could to “authorize” new business practices. And, the preneed regulators (first the State Board, and now the Bureau) often played the same game. The Bureau and the CFDA are now locked in a lawsuit (over an antiquated law) that will leave both sides bruised and defensive. The posture taken by the AG suggests the fight could be nasty. But the facts suggest, the State should look to make prospective changes.
NPS exploited the weaknesses of Missouri’s 1986 law, and that company’s collapse gave Missouri regulators the ammunition required to force a new preneed operating system on its funeral industry. The 2009 law has its flaws, and needs changes (other than those in SB340), but preneed life continues in Missouri. Missouri regulators would like to go back in time to change some of the prior law’s flaws, but the push to make retroactive changes has been measured.
In Illinois, the IFDA put together a master trust and an insurance program that pushed the envelope beyond the Comptroller’s tolerance. The Comptroller’s responded much in the same vein as the California regulators did. While entrenched in a lawsuit, the Comptroller pushed his legislative agenda through the legislature. But, Illinois got more of a preneed system patch than a new operating system. Eventually, Illinois is due for a significant preneed system upgrade.
Nebraska is another state that may be due for some form of a preneed update. With a reporting system based on tax cost basis, preneed regulators want to introduce market value into the computation for income distributions. The objective has merit, but the 1987 law can only be stretched so far.
Getting a preneed law that works for both operators and regulators will never be a “one and done” project. Occasional updates will be required.