So why is it so tough to provide preneed portability? Because the transaction has been defined by state law as a contract between a consumer and a death care company, and federal regulators tend to agree. When the issue has arisen in the context of federal preemption, the interests of the state regulator have prevailed on the grounds the transaction is ‘local’ in nature, and the state has an overriding interest in policing the transaction. This perception permeates federal oversight of the preneed transaction, including that provided by the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities Exchange Commission. So long as preneed is defined as a guaranteed contract for goods and services, complete portability will be difficult to achieve.
Consumer advocates view the preneed transaction as a savings account to be safeguarded until the death, and some state laws accommodate that perception. Kansas requires 100% trusting, an accrual of income and assures portability by granting the purchaser the right to designate a different funeral home to perform the contract.
However, if the Kansas contract was written by a funeral home with its own preneed trust, there has to be a trust agreement between the original funeral home and the fiduciary. Despite what the law states, the new funeral home is not bound to that trust agreement. In the absence of a trust agreement, the fiduciary does not want the responsibility of ensuring the new funeral home performs the preneed contract according to its terms. If the new funeral home seeks to have the funds transferred to its own bank, what responsibilities does the trustee have to ensure the receiving institution will accept the funds in a fiduciary capacity? (Is anyone familiar with Bremen Bank?)
So long as the new funeral home is within the state of Kansas, the state’s preneed law could be revised to afford the fiduciary some protections. However, state law will not remedy the situation where the consumer has moved to another state.
When faced with this situation, insurance companies protect themselves by adopting policies that restrict policy assignments. It is not that uncommon to encounter insurance companies that prohibit policy ownership by funeral homes. Insurance companies will be more lenient with funeral homes with whom they have an agency relationship.
For states like Missouri, portability faces the challenges of the seller/provider distinction and lower trusting requirements. Missouri allows preneed sold by third party entities, and requires the seller to have a contract with the funeral home or cemetery prior to marketing to consumers. In keeping with this requirement, regulators recently looked at language to improve portability. However, that result was confusing, and did not consider the fiduciary issues. The Pennsylvania State Board of Funeral Directors had similar experiences with a recent effort to address portability.
If a Missouri contract has been trusted using the minimum requirements, the contract becomes less attractive to other funeral homes as time passes from its sales date. There may come a time when the contract becomes a liability. Under that circumstance, the consumer will have difficulty finding a funeral home willing to accept the contract.
The irony of the NPS failure is that the company’s program offered the consumer interstate portability that only the national death care companies could match. But the NPS customers have not only lost the portability of their contracts, some face the prospect of their named provider going out of business.
Steps can be taken to improve portability, but it will not be as simple as mandating a result. Increasing funding requirements and assuring insurance assignment rights will help. To overcome resistance by funeral directors, protections against ‘twisting’ could be offered.
However, if the consumer wants complete portability, he or she will need to consider the non-guaranteed preneed contract.