On Wednesday, April 30th, the Missouri Department of Insurance fired off the first salvo in the legal proceedings to recover funds from Lincoln Memorial Life Insurance Company. In an effort to prepare those affected by the NPS meltdown, the Missouri State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors and the Division of Professional Registration have issued press releases that explain critical issues related to this situation. The tenor of these press releases is substantially different from those previously released by other states’ regulators. Consumers and funeral directors need to review these releases carefully.
If it hasn’t been apparent to funeral directors before now, Missouri’s filings against Lincoln Memorial Life reflect that the NPS trusts are full of term insurance policies. Some reports indicate that the policies may be lapsing soon. While Missouri Department of Insurance has filed its actions against Lincoln Memorial Life, the eventual target will be the NPS/Lincoln corporate officers and directors. Because regulators must pursue their claims through the authorities granted by the statutes governing insurance and preneed, funeral homes need to consider banding together in an action that focuses on the authorities granted to the replacement management team installed by the Texas regulators.
The Missouri regulators and their legal staffs have been overwhelmed by the situation. These offices were understaffed to begin with, and the magnitude of the investigation, legal proceedings and inquiries has stretched their resources to the limits. This all may make for good campaign rhetoric in the upcoming fall elections, but the industry needs to take actions to help recover improperly diverted funds.
The rumors of law firms offering to initiate class action lawsuits have already begun to circulate. But, most funeral directors probably appreciate that building a coalition to preserve the NPS assets and working towards an equitable division of the proceeds would better serve their interests. To be fair, consumers need an explanation about the third party preneed transaction and their exposure for the NPS failure.
The majority of preneed contracts are between the funeral home/cemetery and the purchaser, wherein the funeral home/cemetery is the primary obligor. The essence of the contract is two promises: the purchaser to pay a specific amount of money and the funeral home/cemetery to provide certain described services and goods when the purchaser (beneficiary) dies.
NPS is (was) a third party preneed seller. Funeral homes and cemeteries use third party sellers for a handful of valid purposes. Often, smaller death care companies may not have the volume of preneed sales to justify the expense of contracts, administration and compliance and so they contract with third party preneed sellers. Some states require the death care company to be the obligor of the preneed contract, but many do not. In states where law requires the death care company to be the obligor, the third party seller acts in an agency capacity to the funeral home and cemetery. It that situation, the death care company has an obligation to honor the contract regardless of most circumstances (like the failure of the trust).
However, states such as Missouri and Texas, allow the third party seller to be the obligor of the preneed contract. In these types of preneed transactions, there are four sets of promises: the purchaser to pay money to the third party seller, the third party seller to cause the funeral home to provide a funeral by paying it money, the funeral home to provide the funeral, and the third party seller to pay money to the funeral home. However, the terms of the payment between the third party seller and the funeral home are not generally disclosed in the preneed contract, but rather in a separate agreement between the third party seller and the funeral home/cemetery (called an associate agreement or provider agreement).
NPS used a multitude of different preneed contract forms and associate agreements (most of which were infamous for their ambiguity or brevity). NPS relied upon these ambiguities to transfer preneed contracts from one funeral home to another funeral home if the circumstances benefited NPS. Consequently, the agreements were intended to be difficult to enforce, which cuts two ways.
Regulators did not seem to appreciate this fact when early press releases were issued to calm consumers. Those press releases suggested that funeral homes would have to honor their NPS contract “pursuant to their terms”. While funeral directors cannot afford to walk away from their families, regulators need to follow the lead taken by Missouri’s State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors by being more forthright with consumers. If the NPS/Lincoln proceedings take years to resolve (instead of months), the parties will need an understanding of their respective rights and obligations in reaching fair and equitable settlements.