The preneed bill that angered the Funeral Consumers Alliance in February continues to advance within the Tennessee legislature. SB 2705/HB 2763 has been placed on the calendar for the Commerce Committee for April 1st. If passed, the legislation may well make Tennessee the first state to lower its preneed trusting requirement. Despite the need for better consumer protections, I anticipate other states may eventually follow suit.
Preneed is evolving from a transaction of accommodation to becoming an essential element of each funeral home’s business. Funeral directors in 100% trusting states such as Tennessee are feeling the need to control their own preneed programs, and have come to appreciate the costs of establishing, and maintaining, a trust funded preneed program. 100% trusting laws have historically dictated that insurance be used as the principal method for funding, with trust funding as a backup for purchasers who were too old or could not qualify. With insurance companies coming and going within the preneed market, funeral homes want the alternative to offer consumers a trust-based product.
Why will legislators be willing to decrease 100% trusting laws: the guaranteed preneed contract has been, and continues to be, viewed as a sale of goods and services. Legislators are likely being told that if consumers want a product that provides a full refund right, and portability, then they can choose a non-guaranteed preneed contract. Tennessee’s law provides that option. But is the non-guaranteed preneed contract really a viable alternative?
The vast majority of laws and regulations aimed at regulating the preneed transaction are in response to the guaranteed preneed contract. This is true regardless of whether the issue is securities regulation, income taxes or trusting requirements. Preneed has been defined as a purchase transaction, not a dedicated savings account transaction. As a consequence, criticism that attempts to re-characterize the preneed transaction as a savings plan can often be deflected by the death care industry.
The Tennessee Prepaid Funeral Benefits Act has several excellent features, and could serve as a reference for other states. But, as with most preneed laws, it has some provisions which leaves one to scratch his or her head (like Section 62-5-408(d)). Yet, SB2705/HB2763 provides a reasonable remedy to the hole left in the 2007 effort to repair the Smart damage: funding the protection fund from the funds retained by sellers on guaranteed preneed contract sales.
Fiduciaries also need to consider that the Act authorizes civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation of the Act committed by the preneed trustee.