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.
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.
For many Illinois funeral homes, April 15th served as a bitter reminder of Merrill Lynch and the financial losses suffered by the IFDA master trust. The final Merrill Lynch settlements (approximately $41 million) were received in 2012, and taxes had to be paid on those funds this past tax day. Funeral directors have questioned how those settlement payments could be taxed as income after the losses suffered when Merrill Lynch (as trustee) terminated the key man policies sold to the trust by a Merrill Lynch investment broker. After all, the aggregate settlement payments ($59 million) did not come close to covering the write downs taken by the trust ($76 million). But, Merrill Lynch took the position that a write down in a funeral home’s trust value for policy surrenders did not represent an investment loss. To compound the situation, Merrill Lynch filed a final Form 1041qft for each funeral home that transferred out of the master trust and treated the trust as terminated.
The question is whether Merrill Lynch could have characterized the value write downs so as to afford the funeral homes a capital loss carry over that could be applied to the settlement payments and future income. If one assumes the lowest Form 1041qft tax rate of 15%, Merrill Lynch could have saved the IFDA master trust participants income taxes of approximately $11.5 million.
With Merrill Lynch now out of the IFDA picture, funeral homes may want to turn to the IFDA’s new trustee for assistance. If the write downs can be properly characterized as losses that can be used as capital loss carryovers, it may be worthwhile to have those ‘final’ 1041QFT returns amended. As fiduciary of the Wisconsin Master Trust, the IFDA trustee may have already contemplated this issue.
They say that the devil is in the details, and that is proving true for the Obama definition of the “rich” (those families that earn more than $250,000) and the plan to fix the budget. The IRS provided some detail to the Obama plan last December when it published a proposed regulation that would increase the Medicare tax to 3.8% and impose the tax on the rich through their trusts and estates. The NFDA and ICCFA have been trying to get their respective members’ attention because the proposed regulation specifically includes their business trusts as ‘rich’ that are be subject to the Medicare tax.
Sometimes it may seem that associations cry wolf to reinforce to the membership the need for the association. But, the proposed IRS regulation is somewhat unique in that it specifically identifies Section 685 qualified funeral trusts and Section 642 endowed care trusts as those which will be subject to the Medicare Tax. As both associations point out in comments submitted to the IRS, the proposal reflects how little the Service understands the purposes of these trusts.
There is a legitimate risk to qualified funeral trusts that do not make individual account allocations for composite filings. We would have thought most fiduciaries prepared QFTs in such a manner, but the Service’s comments from a few years ago suggests otherwise. And, what about those preneed trusts that have not taken the Section 685 election?
Even though the Service’s rationale for application of tax to Section 642 endowed care trusts is tenuous, these trusts lack the individual accounting ‘out’ that can save the QFT.
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.
The Mississippi Secretary of State seems to be taking a very proactive approach to the regulation of preneed and perpetual care funds. Over the course of the last few years, the Regulation and Enforcement Division of the Secretary of State’s office has averaged an enforcement proceeding per month. We were curious what type of enforcement proceedings they were pursuing, and picked one at random. The luck of draw involved a situation where the Mississippi regulators alleged the preneed seller’s preneed contract form did not adequately disclose to the consumer the tax consequences of their preneed trust. While the preneed contract form stated that income taxes may be withheld by the trust, the seller’s trustee reported the income to the contract purchaser. This did not set well with the Mississippi regulators, particularly when the consumer had no right to cancel the contract and receive a refund of the trust income.
The Mississippi regulators are not alone in their perception of the inequities of this situation. Nebraska preneed regulators are also questioning why income should ever be reported to consumers when they may never receive it. The answer is that the Internal Revenue Service forced this issue with Rev. Rul. 87-127, with the goal of requiring a single method of income reporting for preneed trusts.
The Service struggled with the situation that troubles the Mississippi and Nebraska regulators: how can the purchaser be the grantor if he/she is never entitled to a refund of the income (or even trust deposits) upon the contract’s cancellation. But, as between the consumer and the funeral home, the funeral home’s right to the trust corpus is dependent upon performance of the contract. While the consumer may never receive a refund, he/she can choose a different funeral home to service the contract. The value of that service satisfies the grantor rules of the tax code, and supports the IRS’ conclusions in the Ruling.
The inequity of the situation may have led to the passage of IRC Section 685. Given an alternative is available to the seller, the Mississippi regulators sought to force the seller to either change its contract or require the trustee to change its income reporting. But in doing so, the Mississippi regulators misstate IRC Section 685. Irrevocability is not a key characteristic of an IRC Section 685 qualified funeral trust. While the Section 685 election is viewed as irrevocable, the irrevocability of the preneed contract has no impact on Section 685. The Mississippi regulators also fail to acknowledge that Section 685 is the trustee’s election to make, not the funeral home’s. While the two need to work in concert, it is the trustee that has ultimate control over the trust’s income reporting.
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
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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.
For obvious reasons, life insurance is the preneed funding choice for many funeral directors. One hundred percent trusting laws give proactive preneed organizations no choice but to use insurance funding. Insurance provides the commissions needed to finance marketing and a sales force, and, maybe as important, relieves the funeral home from preneed accounting and administration. But insurance funding is predicated on the contract being performed at death. In contrast to funeral homes, cemeteries can (and must) deliver preneed sales in advance of death.
First, and foremost, the grave sale is typically ‘delivered’ as soon as the purchase price is paid. The cash flow generated from the grave sale is too crucial to a cemetery to defer until the purchaser’s death. Few (if any) state laws require the trusting of grave payments, and accordingly, grave sale payments flow directly into a cemetery’s operating account.
Marker and monument sales also generate crucial cash flow to the cemetery. Competition from monument dealers (and funeral homes) prompted cemeteries to offer markers through preneed sales. While it has been customary to defer marker deliveries until death, spiraling granite and bronze costs has forced cemeteries to accelerate deliveries of these sales. Applicable state laws generally require the trusting of preneed cemetery sales, and contemplate trust distributions prior to the consumer’s death.
In contrast to the funeral home, cemeteries do not need insurance for the funding of preneed programs. Cemeteries have an advantage in preneed marketing in that the grave sale has no trusting requirement, and states typically impose lower preneed trusting requirements on the cemetery industry. Where cemeteries feel the insurance void is in the administration required for the preneed sale. Small funeral homes often shun insurance funding in favor of the trust option offered by their state association. There are state cemetery associations that offer a master program, but they are the exception. Consequently, most cemeteries will find preneed to be an uphill climb without the assistance of insurance companies or a master association trust.
It is no secret that the larger funeral home operators have more preneed options than the industry’s mom and pops. The large operators have the volume of business that will attract insurance companies and banks, and their program incentives and discounts. Economies of scale provide the larger operator preneed advantages when going ‘toe to toe’ with the smaller operator. A completely different ‘have’ and ‘have not’ environment exists within the cemetery industry. One crucial fact distinguishes cemetery preneed from funeral preneed: a burial space, and certain merchandise and services, can be delivered prior to death. That fact is a problem for both insurance companies and banks, and accordingly, neither industry has courted the cemetery industry in the same manner as they have the funeral industry. And, there are other factors which complicate cemetery preneed. Consequently, cemeteries tend to be more ‘have nots’ than ‘haves’. The lack of preneed not only puts the cemetery at a disadvantage with funeral homes when competing for vault and marker sales, the cemetery also runs the risk of losing out completely to cremation.
Over the next months, this blog will examine the state of cemetery preneed, and its regulation. While the cemetery industry, as a whole, has been slower to embrace the preneed transaction than the funeral industry, some cemeteries have aggressive preneed programs. With such a distinct dichotomy within the cemetery industry, regulators must decide whether to spend resources on the few, or for the mass.
In relation to many of its peers, Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery could be labeled progressive. Oak Ridge maintains both an endowed care trust and a preneed trust. In contrast, a substantial number of the country’s cemeteries have neither. The fact that Oak Ridge Cemetery is owned and operated by the City of Springfield, Illinois, makes the cemetery even more remarkable. Few municipal cemeteries have such funds, and instead, must be subsidized by taxpayers for operating funds. Despite the foresight of Oak Ridge’s board of directors, the cemetery has had to resort to “netting” the past few years to make ends meet. They have done so to the tune of almost a million dollars, and Springfield’s Mayor is being advised that drastic action is necessary.
The Mayor’s attorney blames Oak Ridge’s board of directors for bad investments and netting deposits, and recommends that the control of the cemetery be changed. With the increase in cremations (and the decline in burials), the Oak Ridge board failed to adapt, and instead, spent the funds that should have been contributed to the trusts. To make up for the decline in trust contributions, the board took more risks with trust investments, which exposed the trusts to the market declines of 2008. The combination of netting consumer payments and investment declines put Oak Ridge in a deep hole. And now, the Mayor’s attorney thinks it’s time for a change in management, and for the cemetery to start living within its means. Sounds like sage advice, but it’s not very practical.
Turning Oak Ridge over to the city’s park and recreational department will only ensure a decline in the cemetery’s operations. While the cemetery’s board may be guilty of staying with their old business plan too long, those individuals are more familiar with the operation of a cemetery than those city employees who oversee Springfield’s parks.
Regarding ‘bad’ investments, the Mayor’s attorney suggests the cemetery board should have stayed conservative. The problem with that advice is that the 2008 market crash hit mortgage-backed securities the hardest, which happens to be the ‘bread and butter’ of most cemetery trust funds. The fact is that most cemetery trusts may be too heavily invested in fixed income, and the need is to diversify their investments (as opposed to ‘going conservative’). (In that the Mayor’s attorney is the same individual who defended the IFDA master trust’s investment in key man insurance, this criticism rings a little hollow.)
While Springfield needs to make the Oak Ridge board more accountable, those members should be given the opportunity to develop a new business plan for the cemetery. The decline in traditional burials is inevitable, and cemeteries must plan accordingly. While the costs of the traditional funeral and burial are a leading factor to the rise in cremations, cemeteries need to evaluate the prices charged for their interment rights and services. They also need to evaluate the need for marketing. One such opportunity is to market to the consumer who has already chosen cremation. Another opportunity is to form marketing alliances with funeral homes.
Or, the Mayor could pull in the reigns and allow the taxpayer to foot the bill.
In a recent article, Bruce Ruston provides a detailed account of the drama behind the IFDA master trust and its divesture of the key man insurance policies. It is a long, costly story about an organization that pushed the legal envelop in several directions with disastrous results: a master trust without a corporate trustee, insurance investments to avoid Rev. Rul. 87-127, fixed returns, high administration fees, and the stubborn defense of a twenty year mistake. The Rushton article is appropriately critical of the IFDA’s legal counsel. But, to better evaluate that criticism, consideration should be given to those facts reported in the various lawsuits and the Secretary of State’s Consent Order that reflect an organization ran by an iron-fisted executive.
That evaluation should start with Robert Ninker’s 1985 decision to reach out to a young, newly licensed insurance salesman. By 1985, there were ample signs that the IRS was building its case for the taxation of preneed trusts. Mr. Ninker cannot be faulted for making life insurance the preferred alternative because it eliminated income reporting to consumers. Many trusts did not have the consumers’ social security numbers and couldn’t report income if they wanted to. So, insurance was proved a means to avoid the reporting problem. But, Mr. Ninker’s decision to turn to Ed Schainker, an insurance salesman with two year’s experience should have caused the association’s attorneys to raise questions.
Mr. Schainker did what salesmen do, he looked through available products, picked one with a high commission and put together the proposal. The proposal not only skirted the Illinois preneed law requiring preneed purchaser approval, it failed to satisfy the requirements of an insurance policy (ie that the master trust have an insurable interest in the ‘insured’ funeral directors). With such obvious problems, why didn’t the IFDA attorneys apply the brakes to the proposal?
Fast forward ten years, and the IFDA lawyers had cause to remind the client in writing of the firm’s concerns about the authority to act as trustee, and to suggest that the association resign. At that point in time, Mr. Ninker was still the boss. Okay, clients do, from time to time, reject their attorney’s advice.
Fast forward another twelve years, and, Mr. Ninker has retired and the Comptroller has finally forced the association’s hand on the trustee issue. With the IFDA attorney in Mr. Ninker’s chair, the association went to Regions Bank, a leading name among death care fiduciaries, for a proposal. That proposal put the key man insurance issue squarely in the attorney’s lap, and rather than acknowledge a twenty-year mistake, the attorney challenged Regions. In the end, there was no client to hide behind.
The decision to defend the investment “to the end” suggests the law firm may have been ‘in over its head’ from the start.
For the past few years, some Kansas cemeteries have been getting nasty grams from their regulator about their care fund trustee’s treatment capital gains taxes. Kansas, like most states, requires a portion of each grave space sale (interment right) to be contributed to a fund or trust for the future care of the cemetery. Kansas law calls that fund a permanent maintenance fund. Missouri law calls it an endowed care trust. In some states it is defined as a perpetual care trust.
Despite what the fund is called, these state laws universally seek to provide the cemetery a source of income to pay for the upkeep of graves (while keeping the contributions in tact). That latter objective, protecting the contributions, brings cemeteries and regulators into conflict when the fund realizes capital gains and losses. The Kansas cemetery regulator has been taking the conflict a step further by interpreting the law to preclude the trustee from paying taxes or fees out of capital gains.
The Kansas regulators (like many of their peers) perceive a ‘looming’ problem with cemeteries: abandonment and the eventual transfer to the municipality or county. Cemeteries are dependent upon the cash flow that comes from space sales (and the accompanying interment fees and marker sales). When a cemetery runs out of spaces, grave maintenance will be completely dependent upon income from the care fund. To minimize the financial burden placed on the county, the Kansas regulator has adopted a very strict interpretation of the law for the purpose of preserving the care fund for the day the cemetery transfers to the government. This interpretation not only precludes the fund from distribution capital gains earnings, but also the trustee’s payment of taxes and fees from the earnings. The regulator reasons that capital gains must be allocated to principal, and the law forbids all distribution of principal.
This puts the cemetery into a bind. The staple of care fund investments, the fixed income security, has been bearing returns of less than 2% for years. When trust expenses are netted from those returns, there is little left to distribute to the cemetery. Necessity has dictated that these funds begin investing in equities. But, the Kansas philosophy would penalize the cemetery. Not only is the cemetery prohibited from using the equity earnings, the cemetery must also pay the taxes incurred on those earnings (reducing what is received from the care fund). The only ‘winner’ is the county. Or is it? If the eventual abandonment takes years, and the cemetery has been deprived income for upkeep and repairs, isn’t the county getting the property in worse shape?
The “R” word is back again. We’re only three years removed from the housing bubble burst, but a sense of normalcy seemed to be returning to the death care industry. It wasn’t necessarily a return to the old ways, not with the increase in cremations and regulations. But, many operators were coming to grips with the changes that needed to be made. This past week’s events suggest the nation’s economy has entered another turbulent period that could last several years.
The debt-ceiling crisis, cuts to government spending, and foreign debt problems impacted US government bonds, foreign bond markets and the stock market. That’s bad news for insurance companies, preneed trusts and perpetual care trusts. Regardless of what type of funding a death care operator uses, the two-year economic forecast has to be concerning. The costs to servicing a guaranteed contract will likely outpace the funding growth.
Insurance companies will attempt to adjust through premium rate changes. But, can the consumer afford the premiums? As reported by the Wall Street Journal a year ago, consumers are finding they cannot afford the multiple pay policy, and if they have to cancel, the cash surrender value is a fraction of the amount paid.
We panned this article when published because it tried to characterize preneed as an investment, and for the elder attorney’s naïveté. However, the concluding recommendation has merit. A final expense trust provides both the consumer and death care operator a funding alternative that can meet their respective needs: affordability, flexibility, protections and higher cancellation refunds. But, it is not practical advice to tell the consumer to start up his/her own trust. Rather, this is an opportunity for death care operators to offer a product matched to the times.
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.
When news of the indictment of 6 National Prearranged Service officers was reported last November, many newspapers picked up the AP version that included a quote from the Internal Revenue Service criminal investigator. The fact is that the Federal investigation of NPS involves investigators from the IRS, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. An FBI press release regarding the NPS indictments includes comments from investigators with the three Federal agencies. To understand how NPS’ actions triggered the jurisdiction of the three agencies, a 2009 FBI press release concerning the indictment of Randall Sutton provides an explanation of the underlying facts.
The main thrust of the IRS investigation will be to determine whether the NPS officers committed income tax evasion with regard to what they individually received, or with regard to what the company received. The investigation will need to determine how the distributions from insurance, and from trusts, should have been reported by NPS. The investigation will also need to examine how NPS’ sister corporation, Lincoln Memorial Life, reported its income. And, the investigation will look at how the preneed trusts controlled by NPS reported their income.
Shortly after the Federal investigation of NPS was initiated, the Springfield Journal-Register reported that a Federal investigation of the Illinois Funeral Directors Association master trust had been initiated. As with NPS, Federal investigators will look closely at whether the reports mailed to funeral homes, and the statements mailed to consumers, were fraudulent, and thereby, violated mail fraud statutes. However, another line of investigation will be whether the master trust violated the Federal tax code.
What does the IRS’ role in these investigations mean to funeral homes and consumers? If these entities failed to accurately report income, the IRS (and state authorities) will view the unreported income as lost revenue to government. Preneed trust income must either be reported to the consumer or taxed by the trust. NPS trusts may have had annual tax liabilities in the tens of millions of dollars. No small potatoes considering the plight state coffers currently face.
Consequently, consumers and funeral homes may see taxing authorities become more aggressive in the enforcement of preneed income reporting requirements. With fewer agents due to budget constraints, the IRS may begin promoting its whistleblower program. If the situation reported this past weekend is an indicator of the future, non-compliant preneed companies may have more to fear from the disgruntled employee than being selected for a random audit by the IRS or state department of revenue.
The 2010 calendar year proved a welcomed change for many trust funded preneed programs. The 2008 collapse of the home mortgage market triggered a melt down of bonds that lingered well into 2009. The press provided extensive coverage of how the situation impacted our 401k accounts. Stories about value declines of 25% to 33% were fairly common. But, most preneed trusts suffered a similar experience. Preneed fiduciaries were forced to examine fixed income portfolios for impaired assets, and some mortgage backed securities (long the staple of preneed trusts and endowed care trusts) had to be sold off.
In 2008 and 2009, many preneed trusts experienced capital losses that exceeded realized income. For the preneed trust reporting pursuant to a Federal Form 1041QFT, this black cloud had a silver lining: capital losses could be carried over to future years. With trusts seeing 2010 returns in the high single digits (and some double digit returns), the capital loss carry over provides fiduciaries an opportunity to reduce (or eliminate) the trust’s tax liability in 2010.
The manner in which a fiduciary applies the capital loss carry over (or CLCO) depends on how the 1041QFT was prepared in prior tax years. The QFT return contemplates individual trust accounts with a composite return, but IRS commentary suggests that a significant portion of QFT returns is prepared as a single, unified trust (see our August 9, 2008 post titled “The Section 685 QFT amendment: Supporting Soldiers’ Survivors”). With a composite return, the tax rate rarely exceeds 15%. With the unified trust, the tax rate will generally be 35% (when the trust income as a whole exceeds $11,200).
With the composite return, the CLCO is allocated among the individual accounts, and may be carried over in multiple years. With unified trust, the CLCO will be applied to the entire trust. In either case, the tax savings could be substantial.
Getting the 2010 return right may be more important than ever. As we will report in an upcoming post, the NPS collapse (and perhaps the IFDA/Merrill Lynch debacle) has caught the IRS’ attention. After twenty years of slumber, our tax regulator has reason to take a closer at how preneed is taxed.
The Springfield Journal-Register reported last week on the latest lawsuit to hit Merrill Lynch, the IFDA and the law firm that represented the Association.
One aspect of the lawsuit focuses upon the claim that the key man insurance policies sold to the master trust were not suitable investments. Without an insurable interest, the policies could not provide the tax consequences sought for participating funeral homes. Piercing through the “it’s an insurance policy argument”, the allegations are directed at whether Merrill Lynch has violated securities laws. With the implication of securities laws, the Illinois Secretary of State’s jurisdiction has been triggered.
The article also reports on the lawsuit’s allegations against the law firm that represented the IFDA. Concerns over the investments date back to 1987 (which coincides with the issuance of Rev. Rul. 87-127), when the lawyers sought regulatory approval of the plan. While that approval was never provided, the IFDA moved forward, and the law firm is now being blamed for ‘giving the green light’.
If their preneed contract is trust funded, Illinois consumers should soon be receiving statements from the bank or trust company that administers their account. These statements are one of the new requirements imposed by SB1682. The contents of the statements are governed by Section 2.h of the Funeral or Burial Funds Act.
The Comptroller’s Office sought the consumer statement in part to require accountability for the fees and expenses being charged by the IFDA. The Comptroller has brought legal proceedings to force the Association to refund a portion of the fees charged to the master trust. The California Master Trust faces similar complaints from the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau.
One allegation common to both master trusts was the fact the fees being charged were based on a ‘value’ other than the trust’s market value. The regulators have also challenged the reasonableness of the fees.
Another emerging reform issue that could impact this new Illinois disclosure requirement is whether the fiduciary (or its affiliates) receives a 12b-1 fee.
Consequently, Illinois preneed fiduciaries have cause for being cautious when reporting how much the preneed trust arrangement is costing the consumer (and the funeral home).
The ‘deadline’ for Missouri preneed sellers to ‘voluntarily’ report their pre-SB1 trust funded sales is a mere two weeks away. Again, this is a voluntary report. As such, missing the ‘deadline’ or failing to use the Board’s form carries no penalty to the preneed seller. So, why file?
The reason expressed by one State Board member was that the report would give preneed sellers the opportunity to demonstrate their trust was appropriately funded. Funeral directors active before the 2009 Missouri Legislature advised their legislators that the actions of NPS were not reflective of the industry as a whole. Legislators were informed that the vast majority of funeral homes put the consumers’ funds in the bank.
Missouri preneed sellers have three funding options: joint accounts, trusts and insurance. The issue of whether joint accounts are properly funded was addressed with the first provider renewal reporting filed this past October 31st. With insurance premiums posted to an insurance carrier, the Board decided trust funding would be their second priority.
The voluntary trust report is the opportunity for those sellers to put their money where their mouth is. Granted, the financial examinations proposed by the Division are far more intrusive than what had been discussed. But, the failure to back up the talk to the legislature will ring hollow in the face of the Board’s initial efforts to back up the industry’s representations.
Individually, funeral homes need to approach the voluntary reporting as another step in organizing their records in a manner to expedite the eventual financial exam. The goal is to get the exam over with a minimum of disruption and problems.
While many sellers are professing to be ‘as clean as a whistle’, most sellers will have issues. In the absence of regular oversight and guidance, funeral directors were left to interpret the law on their own. Mistakes were made, and the State Board would rather help correct those mistakes than pursue disciplinary actions that clog the administrative hearings docket. Accordingly, sellers could use the voluntary trust report to identify any issues they may have, and to outline their own corrective plan. Be a problem solver.
For those sellers who decide to make the Board examiners earn their keep, the expense of oversight will be pushed higher. The $36 per contract fee will prove inadequate, and the discussion will turn to increased fees. If the data should prove that a disproportionate amount of examination time was spent on small sellers who made no effort to comply, the larger preneed sellers will force the cost of the system to be more equitable. Under Illinois law, the preneed regulator has the authority to tag such a seller with a $20,000 audit fee. That represents 555 preneed contract fees that must be borne by the seller, not the trust or the preneed consumers.
The Illinois Funeral Directors Association is living out its own version of A Christmas Carol, with the Ghost of Yet to Come having painted a fate similar to that of Scrooge.
The court decision reported by the Memorial Business Journal* has all but sealed the fate of the Association. While the attorneys can continue to maneuver (and file appeals), the IFDA’s future is dependent upon how its board responds. But, the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present offer little hope for the Association’s members. Everything rests on whether the IFDA Board can change course and demonstrate the leadership required to win back the trust of its current (and past) members.
If the situation in Illinois is like that seen in other states (including Missouri), the IFDA board must confront the frustration of larger operators who have felt ignored for years. Unlike Scrooge’s nephew Fred, many of these operators are neither paupers nor inclined to extend hospitality to an ailing, dysfunctional organization. But these are difficult times for the funeral industry, and operators must begin to search for common ground. The demise of an association will result in a vacuum that will be difficult to fill as reform picks up speed.
*Reprinted with permission from the December 16, 2010 issue of the Memorial Business Journal. To subscribe please call 609-815-8145.
With the exception of a few states, each form of preneed funding has its own statutory requirements. Consequently, different contract forms are required for each method of preneed funding. So, what does this mean for the consumer worried about the safety of funds paid to the funeral home or cemetery.
Among the pecking order of contract forms, insurance funded contracts generally tend to be among the more compliant forms. The larger preneed carriers understand that if they are to win the funeral home’s business, the carrier must be able to provide the funeral home with the preneed contract form. When there is a problem with an insurance funded contract, often it is because the agent has chosen the wrong form. For example, the recent law change in Illinois requires new disclosures to be made in the contract form. If the agent pulls an old form, the contract is in violation of SB1682.
In terms of compliance, the trust-funded contract may place a distant second depending on who sponsors the trust (and whether the consumer’s state requires the filing of the preneed contract form). While the national companies (and some state associations) are diligent about having their contracts reviewed for compliance, that has not been the case for many independently owned funeral homes. While state associations are due credit for bringing a higher level of compliance to their state’s contract form, some associations (such as the contract forms used by the IFDA) set a very low bar.
The most suspect of the funding methods contracts is the depository (or self administered) account. With this funding method, the preneed seller is going solo without the assistance of an insurance company, the state association, or even a fiduciary. All too often, the operator assumes a contract is a contract, and ‘borrows’ a contract form from another funding method. Or worse yet, the funeral home uses the FTC at-need goods and services form as the preneed contract.
To prepare for a regulatory examination, sellers need to confirm they are using the correct (and current) contract form. Within each funding folder, the seller should establish a current contract form folder and a historic contract form folder. Similarly, the operator will want to maintain a current GPL and Outer Burial Container price list and a historic GPL and OBC price list folder (going back indefinitely).
While many consumers tend to purchase preneed based on personal trust earned by the funeral director, contract form compliance demonstrates that funeral director’s understanding of the preneed law. Preneed contract form compliance is also the consumer’s protection should the trusted funeral director ever be hit by a bus. The next owner of the funeral home will be bound by the terms of those preneed contracts, not necessarily the oral assurances of his predecessor.
It seems paradoxical to see preneed regulators ramping up audit programs while state budgets are being slashed to the bone. Yet, several I-70 corridor states will soon implement new preneed audit programs.
Missouri’s preneed funeral audits will be funded out of a combination of license fees and preneed contract fees. Missouri’s new cemetery law did not provide for any additional fees to offset the expense of a new reporting system and audits, and so, one most anticipate the state will look to recover from its expenses from non-compliant cemeteries.
Colorado had a modest, but significant, law change: the preneed regulator was granted authority to assess fees against preneed sellers to fund examinations. With a source for funding, new audit procedures have been submitted for approval.
With regard to cemeteries, Kansas quietly promulgated a regulation authorizing a $20 per preneed contract fee. Kansas would like to use a portion of those fees to implement a preneed contract database that would provide data that would be used in cemetery audits.
Nebraska also has plans to implement a new preneed database for auditing master trusts. In the absence of funding legislation, the Department of Insurance must use a carrot and stick approach with the state’s larger preneed sellers. Similar to the Illinois approach, the Nebraska stick would be the assessment of audit expenses against the non-compliant preneed seller. Illinois’ recent preneed law change (SB1682) raised the possible assessment from $7,500 to $20,000. For the preneed seller found to have issues of material non-compliance, the costs of a full audit could cost tens of thousands of dollars. And then there’s the issue of funding up deficiencies. As the Illinois law spells out, the audit penalty cannot be paid out of the preneed trust.
For preneed sellers from Illinois to Colorado, it isn’t a matter of whether there will be exams or audits, but when. For some states, those exams will come sooner than others. Missouri is currently training new examiners, and could well release them on those sellers who miss the October 31st renewal deadline.
The financial fallout from the failures of NPS and IFDA regarding compliance with state and federal laws has accelerated the decision of many funeral directors to switch to the non-guaranteed preneed contract. That non-guaranteed contract represents a fundamental change in the relationship that is established between the consumer, the funeral home and the preneed fiduciary.
The trust-funded preneed contract establishes a fiduciary account that has two beneficiaries: the funeral home and the consumer. It is quite common for fiduciaries to administer trusts with beneficiaries with competing interests. With competing beneficiary interests, the fiduciary must look to the trust provisions, and applicable state law, to determine who may exercise discretionary authorities regarding the trust.
State preneed laws are written in response to existing practices, and historically, the guaranteed contract defined preneed practices. When the funeral home sells a guaranteed contract it is the funeral home that assumes the risk of the trust’s investment performance. With that risk, preneed statutes typically vest in the funeral home the authority to establish the trust, to hire and replace the fiduciary, and to participate in decisions such as investments. State preneed laws have generally been vague or silent about administrative and accounting issues, and fiduciaries have turned to the funeral home for instructions regarding accounting and income reporting.
With the non-guaranteed contract, the funeral home has both deferred the sale of the funeral (until death) and transferred the risk of investment performance to the consumer. Appropriately, the consumer may have questions to put to the funeral home, the fiduciary and the preneed regulator:
- Must the fiduciary follow a different investment policy with regard to funds held for guaranteed contracts versus non-guaranteed contracts?
- How is trust asset value allocated to the contracts?
- How is income and expenses allocated among the types of contracts?
- How will income and expenses be reported?
For many funeral homes, the latter issue (the reporting of trust income) drove both investment policies and accounting procedures. No one likes to get a tax statement on a preneed contract, and so many funeral homes went to tax exempt bonds in belief this relieved the trust from reporting income to the consumer. But, the IRS requires tax-exempt income to be reported because it impacts the taxability of social security benefits. If the consumer hasn’t received an accurate statement of income and expenses, his account has exposure for a $50 penalty if the trust isn’t being reported pursuant to a Form 1041QFT. (This accuracy reporting penalty more than likely led the IFDA corporate fiduciary to effect a Section 685 election for all master trust accounts.)
For the upcoming wave of non-guaranteed contracts, there are only two permissible methods of reporting income: grantor statements to the consumer or a Section 1041qft. Regardless of which income reporting method is used, the funeral home and fiduciary can not simply park the consumer’s funds in a tax-exempt fund. The preneed trust’s allocation of income and expenses for tax reporting will be similar for both approaches, thus making the trust’s tax return a tool for regulators when evaluating the fiduciary’s administration and accounting.
California funeral directors face a September 13th deadline that could have substantial financial consequences, including the repayment of trust distributions.
A July 1st letter sent by the California’s Cemetery & Funeral Bureau to funeral homes in the California Master Trust outlined the regulator’s rejection of the Association responses regarding the Master Trust audit. An impatient Bureau gave funeral directors 3 weeks to respond. That deadline was quickly extended to August 11th. Then the week before the August 11th deadline, the Bureau granted another extension to September 13th. On the eve of the deadline, there is nothing on the Bureau's website to suggest another extension is in the offering.
The Bureau is demanding several significant changes to be made to the administration of the California Master Trust. But one demand that may prove problematic for the Association will be the Bureau’s demand that funeral homes repay to consumers’ trusts the administration fees that have been paid out over the years. The Bureau has rejected the Association’s proposal for prospective procedures to document the fees.
Within the past year, Nebraska preneed sellers were also called upon to replenish trusts for the method in which income taxes were paid. The Nebraska examinations also went back several years, and involved substantial amounts.
With new reporting requirements, Missouri funeral homes will also have to explain trust and joint account shortages. Some Missouri funeral directors have failed to appreciate how Missouri law distinguishes between trusting and joint accounts. Missouri’s old preneed law allowed sellers who used trusts to retain 20% of the consumer’s payments, and to withdraw income (subject to the mark to market) requirement. Those provisions don’t apply to joint accounts. With regard to the new Missouri law, sellers also need to grasp that the 10% sales expense is permitted only with regard to trust contracts that are guaranteed. With regard to Pre-SB1 trusts, sellers could be held accountable for income, taxes and expense distributions that cause the trust to drop below aggregate deposits.
Illinois preneed sellers have a similar limitation on their claim to the 5/15% permitted under their preneed law. While the lawsuits that have embroiled the IFDA claim about 1/3 of the master trust’s contracts were non-guaranteed, it’s not clear the funeral homes made that distinction when claiming their ‘administrative fee’.
For those funeral directors who participate in a master trust, the California drama is worth watching. While the Association is crucial to negotiating a resolution, the Bureau has taken its fight to the individual funeral homes. Will other state’s regulators follow suit?
While the reasons are open to debate, it is common knowledge within the funeral industry that a small percentage of consumers cancel their preneed contracts. Consequently, some funeral directors tend to view their preneed block of business with a degree of certainty. Performance of the contracts, and recognition of the revenues, seems to be just a matter of timing. A few state laws reflect the perception that performance of the preneed contract is a ‘lock’. For 37 years, Missouri law allowed preneed sellers to withdraw trust income. Nevada’s law has similar provisions. Preneed trust income became a source of funds that could subsidize funeral home operations.
While the preneed subsidy had long been a source of frustration for certain Missouri officials, they were powerless to stop the practice until the failure of National Prearranged Services. With the 2009 passage of Senate Bill No.1, Missouri officials feel they have a law that they can use to force a new business model upon the funeral industry.
In the case of the California Master Trust, the Department of Consumer Affairs has taken a similar position with regard to an administrative fee that has been paid to participating funeral homes for decades. Consistent with the historic industry view, the CFDA response relies in part upon the preneed guarantee and the risk assumed by the funeral home.
The position becomes tenuous when the administrative fee is judged on terms of whether a necessary service has been rendered to the trust, and whether the amount paid is reasonable for the services received. It is apparent from the documents that the DCA will also apply that analysis to what the CFDA has charged the trust. Depending upon how this controversy is resolved, other states’ regulators may ask whether the administrative fees charged to the master trust are appropriate.
As a recent Funeral Service Insider comment suggests, some industry associations have also become dependent upon the preneed subsidy. The classic guaranteed argument loses traction when facts such as those in Illinois emerge. By one account, non-guaranteed preneed contracts accounted for one third of the contracts administered by the IFDA.
But, in defense of the CMT, preneed trusts are labor-intensive enterprises where the funeral home, administrator and fiduciary have shared responsibilities. In its challenge of a different CMT issue (the maintenance of preneed records within California), the DCA acknowledges this reality while discussing the funeral home’s recordkeeping duties. Effective field examinations will require that certain preneed records be maintained at the funeral home. But, is it reasonable to impose greater administrative requirements on the funeral home without allowing any compensation to be paid to them?
The emerging regulatory challenge to the preneed subsidy is premised on the position that the funeral home’s right to preneed funds does not vest until the contract is performed. That position is consistent with Missouri’s efforts to improve portability. But, regulators must also find a consistent and reasonable position with regard to the services that they mandate from the funeral home.
(The Funeral Service Insider excerpt was included by special permission from Kates-Boylston Publications and Funeral Service Insider.)
In contrast to how the IFDA situation was handled, the California Department of Consumer Affairs has taken a public approach to disclosing its issues with the CFDA’s master trust by posting its website an audit report and the Association’s reply.
The DCA is unhappy with the Association, and the master trust fiduciary, with regard to (among other things) the fees that have been charged to the trust, the authorities that have been delegated by the fiduciary, and their refusals to respond to certain audit inquiries and document requests.
The audit report reflects a very literal interpretation of the applicable California laws. A close reading of the report should leave one scratching his/her head on a few of the issues (hint: corpus issues). But, auditors have no choice but to apply the laws that are applicable to the entity under examination, and unfortunately, the California preneed law and rules are dated and disjunctive.
For those who summarily advise that the audit report and the DCA actions reflect yet another example of a preneed program gone bad, that is not the case.
The DCA website includes the April 29th response from the law firm representing the Association. I doubt the attorneys knew that the letter would end up on the DCA website, but the reply is very illustrative of the issues that exist with a dated, and ambiguous, law. While the Association has made some serious missteps with regard to some of the law’s ambiguities, the auditor’s interpretations of the law and its requirements are inconsistent or unreasonable in some respects. Accordingly, the DCA would be well advised to accept the offer extended in the “Conclusions” on page 46 of the reply.
The crucial issues raised by this dispute are relevant to all master trusts, and will be addressed in future posts. Hopefully, the DCA will continue to make the discussions and eventual resolutions public so that death care regulators and preneed program administrators can take note.
The Wall Street Journal has long been viewed as a leading source of business and investment news. But last weekend, the WSJ ran a short article on preneed, and demonstrated its lack of understanding of the transaction.
The article attempts to characterize preneed as an investment, and then explores issues such as cash surrender charges, cancellation penalties and the NPS failure. This is all very misleading because preneed is not an investment, or a security, but rather the purchase of funeral goods and services.
Those who are considering the purchase of preneed should not view the transaction as an investment. The Securities Exchange Commission determined decades ago that the transaction is a purchase of goods and services, not an investment. While the transaction may be entered as a ‘hedge against rising costs’, there are forms of preneed that do not provide such protections.
The WSJ article ends with advice that also misses the mark. An elder law attorney suggests that a simple trust, costing “a few hundred dollars”, could substitute for the preneed transaction. Unless the attorney is considering individual trustees who serve without compensation, the combined cost of the trust document and the initial corporate fiduciary fee could be several hundred dollars. The corporate fiduciary will then have a minimum annual fee that will be ‘a few hundred dollars’. With a corporate fiduciary, this rather simple plan could end up costing 'a few thousand dollars'.
The next time the WSJ reports on preneed, it should do its homework, and not use the transaction as weekend filler.
The General Laws Committee of the Missouri Senate will hold a hearing this Wednesday (April 7th) on SB 1025. This bill provides hope to many small, rural funeral directors who would rather avoid the preneed transaction and the regulatory morass of SB1.
The bill would add a new Section 208.010.5 whereby individuals seeking to spend down assets to qualify for assistance could establish an irrevocable trust of up to $10,000. The trust could only be used for funeral and burial expenses. The section would also exclude the arrangement from Chapter 436.
When a similar provision was included in last year’s SB1, the funeral directors association expressed concern that the arrangement would be abused. However, the requirements of SB1 have proven burdensome and confusing to the industry, extremely so for the funeral home that only accepts “pre-arrangement funds” as an accommodation.
A Chapter 208 final expense trust would provide the consumer and his Missouri funeral operator a much-needed alternative to the joint account contract.
A recent news report titled “Broken Trust” served to fan the emotions of Illinois residents who purchased a preneed contract from the Illinois Funeral Directors Association. The facts involve a 103 year old lady who purchased the contract 16 years ago, and experienced a 32% drop in the contract’s value in one year. The news report quotes from the funeral home’s website:
“By locking in today’s funeral costs and ensuring that the necessary funds are set aside, you help relieve yourself of unnecessary future worry and your survivors of an unexpected expense.”
The news report then adds: “For the Graces and thousands of other families in Illinois, it did not work that way.”
The news report goes on to add commentary for consumer advocates advising against the purchase of preneed. However, the news report is very misleading and serves to confuse consumers because of an important fact: Mrs. Grace purchased a non-guaranteed contract.
Contrary to what the article suggests, the Grace family did not lock in the 1994 purchase prices of the funeral home’s goods and services. They have every right to be upset about the recent drop in value, but so do hundreds of Illinois funeral homes.
Over the course of 16 years, Mrs. Grace’s preneed contract has realized an increase of 1.66%. Not a great return. The goods and services selected in 1994 to have gone up at a rate of 4.2%.
While a difference of $4,500 may exist between the value of Mrs. Grace’s contract and the current cost of the 1994 goods and services, the Grace family is not obligated to purchase that same funeral. The family may choose less expensive goods and services.
The Illinois Comptroller has published various consumer guidelines regarding preneed contracts. All have an explanation of the differences of guaranteed and non-guaranteed.
To avoid unnecessary distress, consumers should read available disclosures closely, review the preneed contracts, ask questions of the funeral director, and involve other family members in the process.
For Illinois families who own a non-guaranteed preneed contract with diminished values, if you demonstrate flexibility over the casket selection, most funeral homes will reciprocate with regard to their services.
In rejecting the $18 million settlement forced upon IFDA members, an Illinois Circuit Court is telling Merrill Lynch Life Agency to dig deeper into its pocket to compensate funeral homes. As reported by the Springfield Journal-Register, the $18 million represents the revenues the insurance broker received from the sale of key man insurance to the IFDA master trust. Apparently, Merrill Lynch convinced the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI) that the funeral homes’ damages should be measured in terms of the benefit that Merrill Lynch received. But as the editor of the Memorial Business Journal* suggests, the Circuit Court seems more inclined to consider a ‘deeper’ measure of damages, and that will require the parties to the litigation to assess the master trust’s true loss.
The master trust collapse is framed by a ‘value’ that was set by a fixed return (2%) on consumer deposits. Based on that ‘value’, the loss is reported to be close to $100 million. But, one question funeral directors may be forced to answer will be whether the trust could have attained that value with the investment restrictions imposed by the members and the expenses taken by the IFDA. Another issue that may be raised is whether the IFDA’s past executives and attorneys bear some of the responsibilities for either selecting the investments or approving them. If so, comparative negligence may force the IFDA to shoulder responsibility for a portion of the damages.
The situation begs for a negotiated settlement, and it is unfortunate that time and expense was wasted on an end run with a regulator that had little, if any, authority over the IFDA master trust.
*"Reprinted with permission from the March 4, 2010 issue of the Memorial Business Journal. To subscribe please call 609-815-8145."
The Missouri Funeral Director and Embalmer Association provided crucial support to the passage of Senate Bill No. 1, but the heart of the association’s membership, the mom and pop operators, may now be second-guessing that decision.
SB1 provides regulators the authority to audit or examine preneed trusts and joint accounts, including those established prior to August 28, 2009. Missouri funeral directors are now hearing that the State Board will enforce provisions of the law against their old preneed business in such a way so to put their funeral establishment licenses at risk.
The State Board’s authority to audit preneed sellers under the old law was vague. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the State Board conducted ‘random’ audits. In reality, the audits were not random, but weighted by the number of contracts sold. Using independent CPA firms, audits were made of the same small group of sellers. The practice was challenged in the mid-1990s, and audits were discontinued.
While the vast majority of Missouri sellers have never been audited, their preneed contracts have been reviewed periodically by State Board inspectors. Funeral directors are now troubled by the prospect of those contracts failing to pass muster when reviewed by an independent CPA firm.
The licensees’ worries are well founded. Few funeral homes engaged legal counsel for the purpose of preparing preneed contracts or trust agreements. Instead, funeral homes shared or borrowed documents, often without regard to such specifics as how the contract was to be funded. Consequently, funeral homes have used trust-funded contracts for joint accounts.
Some funeral directors are bound to take a defiant position with the State Board’s enforcement of SB1 against their preneed paperwork. While it is predictable that the State Board may assert the licensee’s failure to engage legal counsel is no defense, licensees represented by counsel also have reason to be indignant with the Board.
Veterans Day invariably results in a few newspaper articles similar to the one written about the Pittston City Cemetery. Out of respect for veterans’ graves, this small Pennsylvania town is seeking volunteers to provide care to its cemetery. Budget cuts and personnel cuts have left Pittston without the resources to provide maintenance to the cemetery.
The Pittston cemetery plight provides a context to one funeral director’s assertion that municipal cemeteries represent a ‘true value’ to consumers. The funeral director fails to grasp that the grave at a municipal cemetery is priced artificially low. Most municipal cemeteries are exempt from contributing to endowed care funds intended to provide care to the graves. Instead, taxpayers must subsidize the cemetery’s care. In lean times, the cemetery must go without care.
But for the veterans, would Pittston be seeking volunteers to cut the weeds and clean up the cemetery? Even in death, these veterans continue to serve their community.
Before purchasing a grave space, consumers should ask the cemetery how its maintenance will be funded in future years. If the cemetery maintains a care fund, determine whether it complies with state laws, and request information about the fund’s trustee.
With the upcoming new year, Illinois smaller funeral homes will begin searching for a corporate trustee for their preneed funds. With the Legislature's approval of the Governor's Amendatory Veto of SB1682, funeral directors lose the authority to serve as fiduciary of their own preneed funds.
The old axiom was that it would take three consecutive legislative sessions to get a preneed bill passed. If Missouri and Illinois are indicators of the current preneed reform movement, the charm may be based not on attempts but actual bills passed by the legislature.
The Illinois Comptroller’s proposal for preneed reform, SB1682, is progressing quickly towards approval of the Governor’s amendatory veto. While the bill fails to address most of the recommendations made by the Governor’s task force, SB1682 will tighten the trusting requirements of preneed funds until comprehensive legislation is passed. Consequently, Illinois’ preneed sellers face the dual task of complying with SB1682 and negotiating the future of the preneed transaction. With the various pending lawsuits, the question is whether the Illinois death care industry has the capacity to work with regulators towards a consensus bill.
Missouri preneed funeral regulators have been slow to communicate the new requirements of that state’s new preneed law, Senate Bill No. 1. That bill was written without much cooperation from either the funeral industry or the cemetery industry, and the result is an ambiguous law that imposes requirements without sufficient consideration of practical compliance by the funeral industry. The law has been the source of tremendous confusion, and many funeral directors would rather ‘opt out’ completely. Against a backdrop of the NPS failure, regulators and funeral homes would be best served to reconcile their differences in an attempt to address SB1’s flaws.
Missouri’s cemetery industry also faces a similar legislative task. With a strategy based on the old axiom, one constituency of the Missouri cemetery industry pursued legislation that included provisions intended to provide preneed sellers an option out of SB1. That legislation included provisions objectionable to cemeteries with preneed programs, and most of the bill was scuttled at the 11th hour. The resulting bill opened the door for Missouri cemeteries to establish Chapter 214 preneed programs, but does not provide any regulatory oversight for consumer protections. The bill also leaves the Missouri cemetery industry with the prospect of being regulated under SB1.
Historically, it was the internal industry disputes that made preneed legislation so difficult to pass. Legislators would send the squabbling parties home until they could resolve their disputes. What has changed in the dynamics of preneed legislation is the role of the regulator. Frauds measured by the millions are forcing regulators to share in the accountability of preneed failures. The regulator’s agenda is now trumping the industry’s internal disputes in Illinois and Missouri.
But, the regulator’s trump card does not necessarily guaranty a law that best serves the consumers’ interests.
The September edition of the Mortuary Management ran an excerpt from a Funeral Monitor article about the California Master Trust suffering a deficit.
If the story is accurate about the master trust's shortage, the author's speculation about the reasons for the deficit omits a possible factor that has existed for years: the 4% administration fee.
As explained by the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau's audit guide, California law allows for an annual 4% administration fee. If the CMT takes the full administration fee allowed by law, no wonder the trust is running a bit short.
Cemetery preneed is a different animal for that offered by funeral homes. As Mr. Newcomer suggested to a reporter, the big difference between the two industries revolves around the grave. The interment represents a perpetual obligation on the part of the cemetery.
For the cemetery, the preneed sale typically begins with the grave sale. For the larger cemetery, the preneed sale seldom ends there. The cemetery may sell a variety of merchandise and services to lot owners. Many of the items can be delivered in advance of death, but often the lot owner will want to defer delivery of some of the items.
In contrast to a funeral, cemetery preneed can not be tied to a death, and as a consequence, life insurance is not a viable funding vehicle. Trusts or constructive delivery are the main methods of safeguarding the consumer.
When trust funded preneed is used by the cemetery, the preneed accounting involves a ‘bucket’ for each category of merchandise or service offered to the consumer. Cemetery preneed sales are often made in stages, with the consumer adding items as his/her budget allows. Consequently, buckets are added or emptied as the consumer adds purchases or consents to the delivery of merchandise (like a marker).
As regulators look to provide more oversight to the cemetery preneed transaction, they need to understand the bucket factor.
NPS' sister corporation, Forever Illinois, used the Illinois self trusting provisions to administer preneed funds. As with funeral operators, Senate Bill 1682 will force Illinois cemeteries to seek corporate fiduciaries to administer their preneed and endowed care funds.
Last week’s exchange between the State Journal-Register and the Illinois Comptroller’s office underscores just how poorly some regulators (and funeral directors) understand the preneed transaction.
The newspaper’s June 24th editorial included the following statement:
The directors allege they didn’t find out about the audit until fall 2007 when the comptroller revoked the IFDA’s license to be the fund’s trustee.
The Comptroller’s office responded two days later with a letter stating they are only responsible for auditing funeral homes and cemeteries that are preneed sellers, and that the IFDA was not a seller. While this position is consistent with that taken by the Comptroller in its September 17, 2007 letter of revocation, it is wrong nonetheless.
State associations serve as a jack-of-all-trades with regard to their master trusts, including administrative agents. But for smaller operators, the association (or its affiliate) typically serves as the preneed seller, discharging compliance and licensing obligations that are too burdensome for the ‘little guy’. With regard to larger members that have a seller's license, contracts between the association and the member determine who is the seller.
One problem with the IFDA situation was that the preneed contracts were so poorly written it may be impossible to tell who the seller is. But, it was the Comptroller that licensed the IFDA as a preneed seller, and it was incumbent upon the Comptroller to have addressed the contract and fiduciary problems before the license was issued. It is wrong for the Comptroller to now attempt to duck those responsibilities, or to cram a settlement down the throats of funeral directors on any argument that they were the sellers of the IFDA preneed contracts.
The battle to reform Illinois’ preneed funeral law was renewed by the Comptroller’s office with the release of his Amendment to Senate Bill 1862. Reform in Illinois will take months, and the final product may differ substantially from the Comptroller’s proposal. However, SB 1862 flags Mr. Hynes’ priorities, and one of those priorities could force a shotgun marriage between the IFDA and some of the small funeral homes critical of the Association.
The Illinois preneed law authorizes a preneed seller to act as its own trustee when the seller’s preneed funds are less than $500,000. This provision is a reflection of the difficulty and expense encountered by small operators attempting to find affordable trust services. However, the IFDA exploited this provision with regard to its master trust, and consequently, the Comptroller wants to eliminate the self-trusted arrangement.
The advantage of an association master trust is that it provides the requisite economies of scale to provide affordable trust administration to the smallest funeral home operator. But, many Illinois operators shunned the IFDA master trust because of a lack of transparency. The amount of preneed funds held in self-trusted arrangements could be substantial. If the Comptroller seeks to apply the elimination of the self-trusted exception retroactively to existing trusts, the cost of corporate fiduciary services and the scarcity of such fiduciaries may lead these operators back to the IFDA, perhaps with the numbers to force changes at the Association.
Many preneed trusts either experienced significant capital losses last year or are sitting on assets that have unrealized losses. For those trusts that have taken a Section 685 election, these losses may be carried into future years as a capital loss carryover. While everyone would prefer to avoid realizing those losses, that loss can be used to offset future trust income. With the proper individual contract accounting, the loss could be extended for a longer period than the aggregate reporting followed by many trustees. For an explanation of Section 685 and the differences between aggregate reporting and composite reporting see our August 9, 2008 post titled “The Section 685 QFT amendment: Supporting Soldiers’ Survivors”.
U.S. Senator Roland Burris has been sidestepping questions about his role(s) in the IFDA master trust troubles. While the Senator was a side issue to a March 30th article published by the Springfield Journal Register, the statement provided by his public-relations specialist may signal just how little Mr. Burris understood about his responsibilities to the Illinois public.
In an effort to shift blame to current Comptroller Dan Hynes, Delmarie Cobb wrote to the paper:
I don’t know what he has to say is relevant given that he left the comptroller’s office in 1991. When he left, the pre-need fund was in the black.
Au contraire, Ms. Cobb.
The $49+ million dollar question is why Comptroller Burris issued a seller’s license to the IFDA when it did not have a corporate fiduciary?
Consumers and funeral directors are asking their state regulators how they let the National Prearranged Services collapse to happen. With the exception of Missouri and Iowa, the NPS preneed contract was generally an insurance-funded transaction, and state insurance regulators are taking most of the heat. It is a very different story in Missouri, as witnessed by two competing reform bills: Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 853. For Missouri, NPS used a trust-funded preneed contact (that was subsequently invested with Lincoln Memorial policies). As a consequence, Missouri legislators have made higher trusting requirements and heightened fiduciary responsibilities their top priorities for both bills.
Missouri’s Chapter 436 was written before Rev. Rul. 87-127, when trusts were king. The law also reflects the historic perception of the guaranteed preneed contract (one that is shared by the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities Exchange Commission): the transaction is a sale of goods and services by the death care company.
Chapter 436 allows the preneed seller to retain the purchaser’s first payments until 20% of the sales price has been collected. A 20% sales expense retention provides smaller funeral homes the funds required to maintain a program to compete with larger operations, including the national companies. All subsequent payments must then be deposited to trust. The law was intended ensure there were sufficient trust funds for the funeral home’s “costs” at the time of performance (in contrast to the amount the consumer would have to pay for the funeral at a future date). Consequently, Chapter 436 allows the seller to also withdraw realized income to the extent the trust’s market value equaled the deposits made to trust.
What distinguishes Chapter 436 from most other permissive preneed state laws (such as Iowa) is the public policy decision to require income accrual. By requiring the trust to accrue income, these states have placed a ‘cap’ on the seller’s recovery of preneed program costs. Their message is that the seller must make do with the front-end retention of payments. These states still view the preneed transaction as a sale of goods and services (allowing the recovery of the sales expense costs), but they will not allow the preneed seller to recover other operating expenses from trust funds intended for future performances. In this respect, SB 1 and HB 853 are similar. While both would require the accrual of trust income, only the Senate bill recognizes the preneed contract as a sale of goods and services.
In an attempt to enhance consumer protection and preserve the funeral home’s ability to offer a trust-funded preneed program, SB 1 would raise Missouri’s trusting percentage from 80% to a hybrid 85%. This trusting change will have the greatest impact on small funeral homes with dedicated salesmen and the larger, proactive independent funeral home/cemetery operations.
As the retention percentage is reduced, economies of scale will make it more difficult for small operators to maintain a separate program. While the larger proactive preneed program may have the volume of sales to offset the loss of 5%, they must contend with SB 1’s ‘pro rata’ recovery of sales expense.
The retention of the sales expense from the first payments simplifies the procedures for compensating a program’s salesmen. Missouri’s SB 1 recognizes this issue in that it authorizes the first 5% of the sales price to be retained. While SB 1 allows the seller to collect an additional 10% of the contract sales price, it must do so pro ratably from each subsequent payment. This pro rata approach imposes a greater administrative burden on the seller, contributing to the costs of the preneed program.
In contrast to SB 1, HB 853 requires 100% of a purchaser’s payments to be trusted. The bill’s advocates claim the preneed funds belong to the purchaser, not the funeral home, and consumer protection will be enhanced. Essentially, the bill’s supporters are re-defining the trust-funded preneed contract as a transaction of accommodation to the preneed purchaser. Funeral homes will be required to provide program administration and tax advantages that the consumer cannot otherwise obtain from a bank.
Deprived of a source of funds to offset preneed program expenses, proactive sellers will be forced to utilize insurance funded programs. While insurance offers cost advantages to the younger consumer, many typical preneed purchasers may not qualify for insurance, or may not be able to afford the required premiums. In the end, HB 853 will reduce the preneed options available to consumers and the industry.
Funeral directors who rejected NPS’ promises may feel justified in criticizing those who are asking for help. Generally, their criticism is that NPS exploited funeral directors’ greed. With regard to some trust rollovers, that may be true. But, what NPS best exploited was funeral directors’ desire to devote their time to the service of families rather than preneed.
NPS grasped that many funeral directors felt the need for a proactive preneed presence, but did not have the time, resources or inclination to establish their own program. NPS offered to take care of all the details, with at-need prices to boot. Hindsight is 20/20, but funeral directors should have asked questions and requested documents. But what questions?
Perhaps as an acknowledgement that competition is forcing members to use proactive preneed programs, the NFDA has issued guidelines for evaluating preneed insurers and preneed trusts. During the months that followed the Clayton Smart and Robert Nelms arrests, the NFDA drew criticism for its failure to provide leadership in addressing the growing preneed scandal. Some of the more stinging criticism came from the association’s smaller cousins.
These critics rarely address the elephant in the room: our fragmented, state-based approach to preneed regulation. The New York Funeral Directors Association has an excellent consumer protection statute to work with, but you can’t judge other trade associations without looking at their laws. And, the NFDA has to consider all fifty states when it issues policy guidelines.
If the NFDA’s Guidelines For Evaluating Preneed Trusts seems general and vague, it is because those 50 states’ laws differ substantially, many of which are poorly written. Preneed laws are often compromised efforts that include purposeful ambiguities. Those ambiguities can come back to haunt us years later when a new appointee fills the regulator’s chair.
The NFDA’s task is made even more difficult when suggesting questions that will be asked of member’s state association master trust. But the times demand action.
Taking the NFDA Preneed Trust Evaluation a step further, funeral directors should also request certain documents regarding prospective program sponsors.
From state regulators, determine whether audits are performed of the program. If so, request the most recent audit report. Also inquire whether there have been any disciplinary proceedings during the past three years. Open investigations may be subject to confidentiality requirements, but closed proceedings may be subject to open records requests.
From preneed program sponsors, request the three cornerstone documents: the master trust agreement, the participation/provider agreement and the preneed contract. Determine from the program sponsor whether applicable state law authorizes collective trust investments, and if so, request the sponsor’s guidelines for unit pricing and income/expense allocations. Also request a breakdown of the trustee/administration expenses by: custodial services, fund management, sub-account administration, audit and tax return preparation and reporting. If the master trust utilizes insurance products, request a written explanation of the product’s taxation.
As IFDA members are learning, preneed due diligence is an ongoing obligation. Funeral directors must find the time to periodically review their preneed program by asking the right questions, and getting the answers in writing.
It didn't take long for an Illinois funeral director to confirm that IFDA members have disagreements with their association leadership.
Several Illinois funeral homes filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court on January 28th. The petition, a derivative complaint, seeks remedies and damages on behalf of all Illinois funeral homes that participated in the IFDA master trust. Various IFDA officers, board members and agents are named the defendants. The defendants include Merrill Lynch, in its capacities as an advisor to the IFDA.
The Derivative Complaint asserts facts that indicate the IFDA not only concealed critical information, but mislead funeral directors and consumers. However, the Complaint does not answer the question from my prior post: Who is the seller of the IFDA preneed contracts?
Page 20 of the Complaint approaches the issue with a discussion of "Participating Member Firm Agreements", but ultimately sidesteps the question and its legal ramifications.
The IFDA master trust turned a new page today, and for participating funeral homes, the first step in a long recovery process. With the appointment of Merrill Lynch Bank & Trust as a temporary trustee, the association begins the process of looking for a permanent trustee. The appointment also coincides with the trust's accounts being put on a mark-to-market basis.
The mark-to-market approach taken by the IFDA master trust will mean that the trust's value will be allocated among the preneed contracts each month. Until the benefits of key man insurance purchased by the master trust are realized, funeral directors will be servicing contracts for far less than they were promised. It was not clear from the Q&A circulated to funeral directors whether insurance proceeds will be allocated to preneed contracts serviced while the actuary study is being performed.
Funeral directors who left the IFDA master trust for NPS must feel whipsawed by these circumstances.
Missouri funeral directors questioning reporting requirements being considered by the legislature should note that the IFDA reports its preneed contract values to consumers annually.
During the long and tedious Chapter 436 hearings, some Missouri funeral directors joined consumer advocates in using the NPS failure as reason for recommending that legislators impose 100% trusting on the preneed transaction. Those funeral directors generally advocated the use of insurance or joint accounts as safer methods of preneed funding. During regulatory meetings, comments were also made about how the insurance policies or joint accounts were 'guaranteed'. The realities are that each of these forms of funding has its advantages and disadvantages, and that there are no absolute guarantees.
The AIG failure underscores that even the largest of insurers may be vulnerable to the current financial crisis. While most life insurers are safe, the only guarantees offered by insurance are the rates of return promised by the policy terms. As witnessed by the Texas insolvency proceedings for Lincoln Memorial life, the insurer's promises are only as good as the assets held in its reserve accounts. After that, the policyholder must look to guaranty funds for assistance. Consequently, funeral directors should periodically review the financial statements of the insurance companies they use for preneed funding.
With regard to keeping those preneed funds at the local bank, the funeral director is assuming risk (and liability?) when he exceeds the FDIC insurance coverage. By holding the consumer's payments in a joint capacity, the funeral director is also exposing the funds to the claims of the funeral home's creditors. Losing a lawsuit for damages that exceed the firm's casualty insurance put the consumers at risk.
In contrast, the funds placed in a preneed trust are not the assets of the bank or the funeral home. By virtue of the terms of the preneed contract, the funeral director usually has the risk of investment performance (and under the current circumstances, that's more risk than what some funeral directors want). But in contrast to insurance and joint account contracts, the trust provides the death care operator some say in how investment risk should be handled.
The American Funeral Director recently published Curtis Rostad’s rebuttal letter to a prior story titled “Debunking the Trust Myth”. That same story earned a post on this blog site. While I agree with Mr. Rostad’s views, the sad truth is that many death care trusts do not perform as well as the Indiana Master Trust. It speaks volumes when many Missouri funeral directors prefer insurance funding despite a state law that permits a 20% sales expense to be retained from trust funded contracts. While several reasons exist for the Missouri situation, expense, time demands, poor trust performance, and risk aversion are key factors.
Until a critical mass is reached, death care trusts can be too expensive. Funeral directors are an independent lot, and most want to retain control of their preneed funds. (NPS will serve to reinforce this.) While pooling of preneed trusts would help address this hurdle, some state laws discourage the commingling of accounts because of the industry’s history of poor recordkeeping.
Trusts require a commitment in time that many death care operators are often unwilling to provide. Fiduciaries need input from their death care clients about investment and compliance issues. Funeral directors and cemeterians are care-givers by nature, and many would rather delegate these responsibilities. In the absence of clear instructions, fiduciaries will default to more conservative investments.
It is difficult to provide quality asset management to small trusts. As a consequence, the small trust is often relegated to mutual funds or cash equivalents. Even when the trust has sufficient assets to warrant a diversified portfolio, some operators are risk adverse and park the trust in conservative, but low yielding investments.
Diversification is an important ingredient to improving trust performance. Today’s asset managers use diversification to guard against market risks, and to seek out growth and new sources of income such as dividend producing stocks. To obtain the benefits of diversification, regulators and death care operators need to consider the economies of scale that pooled administration can provide.
If the President signs the Hubbard Act (H.R. 6580), the qualified funeral trust will have the capability to fund all of an individual’s final expenses. When enacted, Section 685 imposed a $7,000 cap on the preneed trusts that could elect special tax treatment. While the limitation increased annually, the cap was too low to permit funding of funeral and cemetery contracts. The cap also precluded cash advance related expenses from being included in many preneed contracts. The Hubbard Act may open the door to allow the Qualified Funeral Trust to become more of a final expense trust.
The Hubbard Act would amend Section 685 for the 2009 tax year. We will need to wait for IRS guidance regarding any retroactive application of the amendment. However, the Hubbard Act would not impact the requirement that the trust must make a payout within 60 days of the beneficiary’s death.
It is interesting to note from the Congressional record that most trustees probably prepare the 1041 QFT without individual sub accounting. With regard to the Hubbard Act, the Congressional Budget Office reports that the Joint Committee on Taxation (the JCT) estimates the elimination of the QFT limitation will increase tax revenues $6 million over the next 9 years. This estimate is based on the assumption that trusts will produce more income that will be taxed at the higher rates.
A 1041 QFT will be taxed at the lowest rate (15%) until its income exceeds $2,150. The next tax rate (25%) applies until the trust income exceeds $5,000. Assume the QFT maximum for 2008 ($9,000), and the trust has to have a return of nearly 24% before the second lowest tax rate is reached. If one were to assume the 1041 QFT has a trust of $25,000, the trust has to have a return of 8.6% (net of trustee fees). Obviously, the JCT are looking at numbers that indicate that trustees are preparing the QFT without individual sub accounting. OUCH!
Assume a $3,000,000 preneed trust with 500 preneed contracts earns net income of 5%, or $150,000. With individual sub accounting, that trust’s 1041 QFT should have an approximate tax liability of $22,500. Without individual sub accounting, that same 1041 QFT will have an approximate tax liability of $51,543.50. Even with the elimination of the Section 685 cap, the tax liability of the QFT with individual sub accounting will likely be taxed at 15%. The difference equates to nearly 1% of the trust, or a good argument for better individual sub accounting.The principal purpose of the Hubbard Act is to provide benefits to the survivors of soldiers killed or severely injured. I doubt it was coincidental that taxes from preneed trusts will be used to offset the costs of helping a soldier’s survivor build a new life.
In response to a proposal that preneed trustees be required to provide periodic account statements to contract purchasers, a funeral director asked what liability he would have to consumers who question the trust’s performance during a year such as 2008. Legally speaking: none. But ultimately, death care companies should be accountable to their families for the decisions they make with regard to preneed funds, including where those funds are placed and how well they are invested. With regard to certain contracts, NPS providers may not be responsible for the promised funeral, but consumers will punish the funeral home that turns its back on those contracts. The funeral home put the consumer at risk by agreeing to do business with NPS. Similarly, if a funeral home fails to devote the time and resources required for proper management of its preneed trust, consumers should ask if they are assuming too great a risk that the facility will be in business when the funeral is needed.
Realistically, periodic trust statements to individual purchasers provide a ‘tickler’ that alone will not flag a troubled preneed program. A systematic trust reporting system is needed. Such a trust reporting system must also afford the public sufficient information to assess the financial strength of the preneed program. Yes, there will be a cost to both consumer and the funeral home, but a trust reporting system will reward the funeral home that devotes the energy and resources required to properly administer their families’ preneed funds.
The Special Deputy Receiver for NPS recently reported the company’s “negative net worth” to be just short of one billion dollars. Rightfully, regulators are looking at the NPS fiduciaries for culpability in the losses that will be sustained by consumers and funeral homes in the years to come. In the meantime, Missouri state officials are working with industry representatives to reform Chapter 436. As they consider how to better safeguard consumers’ funds, regulators and legislators need to appreciate that preneed sellers and fiduciaries have overlapping responsibilities that are affected by a state’s trusting requirements.
In states with lower trusting requirements, the preneed seller typically assumes responsibility for individual preneed contract accounting. Besides the ability to report to consumers, this function is also crucial to the fiduciary’s income tax reporting. In states with higher trusting percentages, the trust often assumes greater responsibilities for the accounting and reporting functions.
Historically, preneed laws have restricted preneed trust expenses to the fee that was typically charged by banks or trust companies for estate planning business. Some state laws also restrict the trustee’s ability contract with the preneed seller for administrative services. While restrictions are needed to avoid a circumvention of the trusting requirements, more latitude should be afforded the fiduciary. In exchange, preneed sellers and fiduciaries should be required to make disclosures about those who provide the trust services, and the fees paid for the various services.
The Texas Department of Banking and the Texas Funeral Directors Association broached these issues ten years ago. In Opinion 98-15, the TDOB found that the preneed trustee fees could be used to pay for marketing expenses, outside recordkeeping for preneed contracts, and investment advice. (It is generally recognized that the trustee can incur expenses for trust accounting, legal expenses and tax reporting on behalf of the trust.)
Eventually, Texas may review its preneed law in light of the fraud committed on its consumers and funeral directors by NPS. I suspect NPS exploited the Texas provisions allowing for a depository. Before eliminating the authority to use the depository arrangement, the Texas legislature needs to appreciate the difficulty the industry has in attracting quality fiduciary services.
Allowing the trust to bear the expense of compliance does not come without the risk of abuse. Services must be necessary to the trust, and reasonable in cost. One check against such abuse would be the requirement that services must be performed pursuant to a contract with the fiduciary. Transparency of the relationships among the parties, and the fees paid could serve as another check. The IRS will likely require such transparency within the next few years as fiduciaries are required to ‘unbundle’ their fees for income tax reporting purposes.
Eventually, we may see death care fiduciary fees being broken down by the following services:
Asset management (investment)
Sub account administration
Regulatory and consumer reporting
Ten years later, the TDOB opinion may be dated in terms of what constitutes a reasonable fee. Sub account administration can run as high as 85 basis points. Asset management fees will differ on the manager’s expertise, and 50 basis points is a fairly common fee. Tax reporting expenses can differ substantially based on the diversification of the trust assets. Distribution oversight may require periodic examinations, and the expense that accompanies on-site reviews. Periodic statements to consumers and regulators will require administrative enhancements. However, economies of scale are crucial to minimizing these costs, and pooled administration will be key to providing the requisite economies of scale. Several years ago, the Office of the Comptroller of Currency recognized the role national banks could play in meeting the needs of the death care industry.
The death care trust is a different breed of animal from a bank’s staple trust business of estate planning. Consequently, legislators need to allow fiduciaries to contract for those services crucial to enhancing the compliance that the preneed transaction so desperately needs.
Preneed companies often reach too far in touting the advantages of their company or product. Such is the case with an article in the June edition of the American Funeral Director. Not to be confused with the infamous Lincoln Memorial Life, Lincoln Heritage Life offers advice why insurance funded preneed is often a better choice for funeral directors and consumers. While the author is correct about there being advantages to the insurance funded product, the article makes several gross generalizations and neglects to address the disadvantages of insurance. The timing of the article couldn’t be worse with the evolving NPS/Lincoln Memorial Life scandal.
Preneed companies should know better than to make such generalizations. State laws regulate the preneed transaction, and so long as this remains true, the wide variance in these laws precludes simple generalizations. Preneed laws are confusing, and often contradictory. Preneed companies should resist giving consumers and funeral directors an impression that is otherwise. Funeral directors are not children, so drop the condescending analogies to the Cookie Monster. Insurance doesn’t mysteriously create two cookies.
Purchaser payments are used by the insurance company to pay commission, administration, contract forms, state insurance department filings, advertising, taxes, actuary salaries, marketing expenses, and reserve requirements. The insurance company overhead results in a low cash surrender value for the older consumer. The older the consumer, the higher the mortality risk. The higher the mortality risk, the more the insurance company has to charge for the insurance policy purchased with installments. The preneed consumer in his/her 70’s may end up paying premiums that exceed the policy death benefit.
Under given facts, the insurance policy will out perform a trust. For the preneed contract that has a duration of ten or more years, the properly managed trust often outperforms the insurance product. How does the article’s analysis hold up for the trust that averages 6 percent after taxes and expenses? The problem is that many trusts are not managed well, and the investment return may be the low 4 percent the author describes. Small preneed trusts are often ‘parked’ in mutual funds or government securities.
What about those licensing requirements? Maintaining individual life insurance licenses can be burdensome for funeral directors. With the NPS/Lincoln debacle, the industry will likely see states pass tougher laws on who can sell insurance. After all, the NPS/Lincoln crisis is as much an insurance problem as it is a trust problem. As the article suggests, funeral directors should look closely at the insurance company’s history and financial strength. Also consider the ‘associates’ that the insurance company retains. For those NPS providers looking for a new insurance program:
"Fool me once,
shame on you.
Fool me twice,
shame on me."
It's always an ugly scene when a party to a fiduciary relationship gets caught with his/her hand in the cookie jar. Unfortunately, this has been happening with alarming frequency in the death care community, and Indiana has had enough. In a relationship that requires mutual cooperation, the death care industry has taken the position that "someone should have stopped us by saying no", and the Indiana legislators have agreed. With the legislation signed into law last week, Indiana has initiated a major shift in the responsibilities of the death care fiduciary. Like the tree falling in the forest, was there anyone from the banking/fiduciary community around to here it?
The Indiana legislature moved quickly in response to the trust frauds committed at Grandview Memorial Gardens and at the cemeteries owned by Robert and Debra Nelms, and Governor Daniels followed suit by signing HB 1026. The new law will go into effect July 1, authorizing the Indiana State Board of Funeral and Cemetery Service to promulgate regulations that will determine the distribution documentation that must be reviewed and approved by death care fiduciaries. Failure to comply with these new requirements will expose the fiduciary to criminal charges and liability to cemetery customers.
To understand the gravity of the issue, fiduciaries need not go any further than their clients for input. The general counsel for the Indiana Cemetery Association put it this way:
The people who own the trusts could do almost what they wanted. We've given the trust companies the incentive not to pull the wool over their eyes.
Cemetery association members were aghast to learn of the case because they did not understand the extent that the current law left cemetery trusts vulnerable. People really weren't aware.
It would be safe to say that most death care fiduciaries are still unaware how vulnerable these trusts are.
What should death care fiduciaries do? The knee-jerk reaction would be to terminate such accounts and run as far away as possible. However, the fraudulent character of the charges leveled in recent class-action suits bring into question whether the statute of limitations has even begun to run. The class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of Grandview Memorial Gardens lot owners will likely turn on whether preneed contracts were performed pursuant to their terms, and that will require the distasteful act of opening gravespaces. The trust frauds committed by the Nelms have already snared one fiduciary and a major brokerage firm when a $20 million class-action lawsuit was filed in late January on behalf of cemetery lot owners.
Fiduciaries with a federal charter may be tempted to play the federal preemption card that has been used to keep state regulators at bay with regard to the sub prime mortgage crisis, but history is not on the national fiduciary's side with regard to death care regulation. State death care regulators in Florida and Texas have taken OTS preemption opinions, rolled them up and slapped thrift chartered fiduciaries into submission. Frankly, the legal arguments advanced by the state regulators were on point.
Indiana chartered fiduciaries need to become engaged in the procedures that will be unfolding before the Indiana State Board of Funeral and Cemetery Service later this Summer. The death care industry will be there in force providing their comments about the forms and procedures to be covered by the regulations authorized by the new law. Fiduciaries will have no one but themselves to blame if they miss this dance.
Federally chartered fiduciaries will need to determine how significant a block of business Indiana represents to their death care business. These fiduciaries will also need to monitor other states to see whether the Indiana law represents a trend that other state legislatures will follow.
Death care companies and consumers will need to anticipate an increase in the cost of fiduciary services. The old adage "you get what you pay for" has a double-edged application to the death care fiduciary environment. The security sought by consumers and cemeteries/funeral homes will come at a cost. To minimize the cost of the new obligation to provide distribution oversight, death care companies and fiduciaries will need to explore standardized examination procedures or the reliance on established audit procedures. Death care companies will also have to be more receptive to trust instrument provisions intended to provide fiduciaries the power to say no, and protections when they do.
Whether it is because of state law restrictions or preneed purchaser demographics, death care trusts have unique requirements when it comes to investments. Consequently, it is fairly common for a death care trust to utilize an investment advisor who has experienced with the industry. However, the deductibility of the fees paid to outside advisors by death care trustees will now be more closely scrutinized in light of a January 16th decision handed down by the US Supreme Court in the case titled Knight vs. Commissioner.
The conflict over the deductibility of investment advisor fees developed within the context of estate planning trusts, and has been brewing since 1993 when the Sixth Circuit rejected the IRS' position in O’Neill vs. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 994 F.2d 302. In subsequent cases in other circuits, the IRS prevailed in its application of IRC Section 67(a) and the 2% floor. Like side catch in a commercial fishery net, death care trusts are being pulled into a controversy based on estate planning facts.
The impact of this issue on some death care trusts is felt not so much by the 2% floor, but by a collateral issue: the alternative minimum tax. For maintenance trust returns, the characterization sought by the IRS renders the advisory fees fully taxable. And, the arguments forwarded by the IRS in its briefs to the Supreme Court and the lower courts suggest that the Service may look at other types of services outsourced by the fiduciary.
The Supreme Court left the door cracked for the full deductiblity of fees paid to trust service providers, but the death care companies will have to work with their fiduciaries to justify the deduction of such fees. To defend the deduction, the parties have to start with their trust instrument and administration documents to define the services and justify their need.
The National Funeral Directors Association has taken the lead in getting legislation introduced to eliminate the dollar cap imposed on qualified funeral trusts. While I hope the NFDA succeeds, it won't be without a fight from the IRS.
As the death care industry inches towards the non-guaranteed preneed transaction, the IRS will express its concerns over abusive trusts. While funeral directors ponder whether consumers will embrace a preneed transaction that does not provide price guarantees, the IRS will question whether the transaction will be abused as a tax shelter.
The Section 685 needs to be increased substantially, but I anticipate the Service will pull no punches while fighting the NFDA's efforts.