A trade newsletter recently reported on funeral homes forming buying groups to negotiate better terms with casket vendors. Through cooperative alliances, the funeral homes can achieve the numbers required to negotiate better discounts from vendors. Those same economies of scale also benefit preneed programs that utilize trust funding. The larger trust not only provides the operator leverage in negotiating terms with a fiduciary, the trust provides the asset manager the critical mass required for a sophisticated asset allocation model for proper diversification.

However, state laws are often a hurdle to independent funeral homes or cemeteries seeking to form a master trust that would commingle funds from multiple sellers. Laws such as Missouri’s Section 436.031 authorize collective investing by preneed trustees, so long as the funds deposited belong to a single preneed seller. This restriction reflects a legislative concern for the trust’s accounting of deposits, distributions, income and expenses.

Rather than close the door completely on collective investment trusts, the Michigan cemetery law signed into law last week left the door open to a new breed of master trusts.

Section 16 of SB 674 establishes a transition period for Michigan cemeteries to transfer their endowed care trusts to corporate fiduciaries. Subparagraph (2) of that section addresses the traditional master trust established by a single cemetery that has multiple trusts or a master trust among multiple cemeteries with common ownership. The subparagraph also references preneed trusts. The opening for pooling among unrelated trusts comes in subparagraph (3) where Michigan’s cemetery commissioner is given the authority to approve ‘other comparable methods of bundling or pooling of trust or escrow funds for investment purposes’.

The fiduciary services provided by national banks are subject to Federal regulations set out in 12 CFR Part 9 (“Reg 9”), and more specifically, collective investment funds are subject to 12CFR 9.18. State chartered fiduciaries and Office of Thrift Supervision chartered fiduciaries are subject to similar requirements. The fiduciary’s authority to pool preneed trust accounts is derived from 12 CFR 9.18(c)(4). The regulation sends the fiduciary back to state law for its authority, and prohibitions. In the absence of express authority (and express prohibitions), the fiduciary is in ‘no man’s land’ with whether it is required to follow the requirements of Reg 9, which include a written plan, audits and asset valuations.

The Michigan law seems to appreciate that Reg 9 requirements go beyond what should be required of a preneed master trust, and appropriately, make the non-traditional master trust subject to a case-by-case approval. The test will be whether the proposed pooling arrangement has sufficient accounting procedures to protect participating operators and their consumers. Missouri is particularly sensitive to this issue in light of the NPS failure, and its procedures for trust rollovers.