It must be spring: preneed reform bills are sprouting like crocus.
The direction taken by the Maryland and Tennessee legislatures in proposing protection funds drew recent criticism from the Funeral Consumers Alliance. While consumer advocates have some valid points regarding these legislative efforts, the obstacles facing states are far more complex than what most outsiders understand. For purposes of this blog entry, lets focus on Maryland and put Tennessee off to another day.
First, a distinction needs to be made between a state’s industry board and a state trade association. Some times the two cooperate to get legislation introduced and passed, and then sometimes the two are on very different pages. Most state industry boards are understaffed and under funded. A casual survey of the website for the Maryland State Board of Morticians & Funeral Directors reflects the Board has one inspector, excuse me, had one inspector, for all of the state’s funeral homes. While the Board’s principal purpose is the “protection of the public’s health and welfare through proper credentialing, examination, licensure, and discipline of morticians, funeral directors, surviving spouses, apprentices and funeral establishments in Maryland”, its newsletter suggests preneed has become its pressing problem.
Preneed accounts for most of the Board’s complaints, and the number of funeral homes that are late in filing their reports to the Board are substantial. Yet any thoughts the Board may have regarding enforcement actions must be tempered with the realities of its budget. As a self-supported entity, the Board’s resources are those fees it charges the state’s funeral homes and morticians, and there lies the first rub with the state’s trade association. What businessman doesn’t complain about the fees charged for licenses? Those complaints are invariably directed to the trade association, which in turn applies pressure on the board.
But the fact something is broken with regard to preneed is not lost on either the Board or Maryland’s funeral director association. The association position for scrapping the CPA certification in favor of a protection fund probably signals the industry’s acknowledgment that this oversight approach is ineffective and a waste of resources. I have experienced the same frustration working with CPAs and auditors who held themselves as having experience with the death care industry. If each funeral home has to find a CPA to certify compliance with a state law like Maryland’s, HB 1090 may well represent a better application of the funeral home’s funds. However, the real problem with Maryland preneed is its preneed law and the lack of effective oversight.
The dynamics of preneed reform are complicated, but there certain generalities that apply from state to state. No matter how bad your state law is, no one wants to open the law for the donnybrook that is sure to follow if all bars are removed. It doesn’t matter if the trusting is 100% or 80%. If you work in a 100% state, there will be a strident element that argues a lower percentage will open the floodgate to the unsavory characters of preneed (and the criticism of FCA). If you work in state such as Missouri, there is the position that opening the preneed law will invite restrictions that cut into the revenue streams that funeral homes have become dependent upon. However, these arguments are beginning to pale in the face of growing frauds and abuse. Most funeral directors understand that oversight is needed, but the challenge is how to achieve it efficiently on the limited resources available. Shifting the responsibility, as Indiana’s legislature is considering, to the fiduciary will not work.
With regard to Maryland’s preneed law, I would offer the following recommendations:
- Require an independent, corporate trustee that can invest pursuant to the Prudent Investor Rule. Scrap the concept of letting a funeral home serve as a trustee (or escrow agent). (And what is a trust that is insured by the FDIC?)
- Require a combination of flat fees and per preneed contract fees that are divided between a protection fund and the Board’s costs to monitor annual reports and to take enforcement actions. The per contract fees should be assessed equally from the funeral home and the consumer (perhaps $10 each).
- Each preneed seller should be required to file an annual report that sets out new contract information, deposits to trust, distributions from trust, the trust’s market value and the trust liability.
- Each preneed seller should be subject to a tri-annual inspection that may last between 1 to 3 days. The inspection reviews the funeral home’s records, accounting controls, a sampling of transactions (deposits, distributions) and the annual reports filed with the Board. The inspection should be conducted by a CPA firm pursuant to agreed upon procedures developed by the Board, with the cost of the inspection being assessed against the funeral home. The better the funeral home’s records and procedures, the more likely the inspection can be completed in a day (and the lower the fee). With a fixed number of inspections per year, the Board should be able to negotiate a fee that is substantially less than the CPA certification required by the current law.
- Inspections that reflect violations or deficiencies can be the basis for full audits (which are assessed against the funeral home).
- Final inspection reports should be a matter of public record so that consumers can investigate funeral homes before making a preneed contract purchase.
- Preneed sellers should have to obtain trustee certifications of new contract deposits, and then provide documentation to the new contract holders of the deposit of their funds to trust.
- Preneed trustees should provide annual summary statements (transactions and asset listings) directly to the Board.
- Trust transfers should be documented to the Board.
Protection funds have merit, and should not be discounted as a ploy. However, preneed oversight is becoming a national issue. Documentation and disclosure will be fundamental to providing an adequate audit trail for regulators. Maryland funeral directors may have legitimate complaints for dropping their current oversight, but they should not opt for a protection fund in lieu of oversight.