Last October, the Illinois Funeral Directors Association posted some “Frequently Asked Questions” on their website. The FAQ page was intended to address questions and concerns raised by funeral directors and consumers about changes being made to the IFDA Master Trust. Page 6 of that FAQ was addressed to the Illinois families that had purchased an IFDA preneed contract, advising that “consumers should feel perfectly confident” in those contracts, and that “guaranteed preneed contracts are guaranteed to provide services in full”. With regard to non-guaranteed contracts, the IFDA represented that the contract’s “principal is protected by the funeral director who sold them”.

If the Class Action Complaint filed last November is an accurate barometer of consumer confidence, the IFDA leadership missed the mark with the public that it’s members serve. Documents also suggest that IFDA leadership has been less than candid with the funeral directors they have pledged to serve.

The current IFDA website offers an explanation that suggests cooperation with regulators, and the presence of financial circumstances that caught everyone off-guard. For consumers, the IFDA offers assurances to the preneed purchaser that the transition will have “very little, if any, impact on them because both ‘non-guaranteed’ and ‘guaranteed’ preneed contracts contain protections for consumers”. The IFDA represents the following:

In the case of “guaranteed” preneed contracts, Illinois law clearly states those contracts are guaranteed and funeral directors are to provide those services in full. 

The message to funeral directors is that they must service these contracts regardless of what is in trust to pay them.

Time to step back and look at theIllinois law and the IFDA preneed contract.

The requirements of guaranteed preneed contracts are set out in 225 ILCS 45/1a-1. Pretty typical of the provisions imposed by other states, but not quite consistent with the IFDA representation. In general, there are two promises made through the guaranteed preneed contract: the purchaser promises to timely pay the sales price according to the contract’s terms, and the contract seller promises not to charge the purchaser any additional amounts for the goods and services described in the contract at the time of the beneficiary’s death.

When the preneed seller and the preneed provider are the same party, the funeral home is on the hook to service the contract regardless of how well the trust performs. But, the funeral home’s legal obligation to perform a preneed contract becomes more complicated when a third party seller is involved. Illinois law authorizes third party preneed sellers so long as disclosures are made in the preneed contract. The $264 million question: the who is the seller of the IFDA preneed contract?

The IFDA has probably used different versions of a guaranteed preneed contract form over the years, but a 2006 form provides clear definitions of “Trustee”, “Provider”, “Purchaser”, “Beneficiary”, and “Depository”, but no definition of “Seller”. There is a single reference to Seller, where the Purchaser is required to acknowledge an explanation of the contract. The context of that provision would suggest the funeral director is the seller. However, Paragraph 15 of the contract muddies the waters.

Per Illinois law, preneed sellers are allowed to retain a portion of the purchaser’s payments. Paragraph 15 is intended to authorize the retention of such amounts, but references the “Trustee, Provider and Depository”. Which one of these entities is the seller? (We can probably rule out U.S. Bank Corp.)

Without the benefit of the agreements and documents that may exist between the IFDA and its member funeral homes, the answer may be reflected by conduct and the application of the Golden Rule. Not that Golden Rule, but rather: he who has the gold, rules.

This would not be the first time an association’s leaders placed control of its master trust above the interests of consumers and its members. The Minnesota Department of Health had such an experience. That association even challenged regulatory orders for the dissemination of information to funeral home members. In the end, the association was forced to enter a Stipulation and Consent Order, and to provide information to its members.  Individual funeral homes also signed consent orders that allowed them protect the consumers by assuming control of the trust funds sold in their name. 

Resolving the problems of the IFDA Master Trust will be far more difficult than following the Minnesota example. If the $160 million of life insurance held by the master trust is key man insurance, the IFDA’s valuations need to factor in the proper tax consequence. Hopefully, the IFDA board members purchased some errors and omissions insurance coverage at the same time they purchased those key man policies.

If the IFDA and its membership are in a dispute over the management of the master trust, the Illinois Comptroller holds the key to breaking the logjam.