John Duggan has a point, and that’s what concerns regulators in Illinois, Missouri and Texas. Who will be blamed when the consumer does not get the benefit of their preneed contract?

While the overwhelming majority of NPS’ preneed contracts will be honored by the funeral home named in the contract as the “provider”, it is not because of regulators’ threats. Most funeral directors cannot afford to abandon their preneed families. The same can be said for the IFDA members and their preneed contracts. But there will be some funeral directors who eventually decide that they cannot afford to honor those contracts. To protect the consumer, the regulator will be called on to enforce a contract that should exist between the funeral home provider and the third party preneed seller.

Many funeral homes rely upon third party sales organizations to provide preneed documents, administration, sales forces and economies of scale. While funeral directors typically relate the term “third party preneed seller” to entities such as National Prearranged Services, the term also includes those entities formed by state associations to service member funeral homes that do not want, or cannot afford, to maintain their own preneed operation. While this relationship involves the delegation of crucial responsibilities, regulators have discovered that the seller and provider have done little to document their respective rights and obligations in a formal agreement.

When the Texas Insurance Department took control of NPS and its sister insurance companies in early 2008, the initial press releases advised funeral directors that they were obligated to honor those contracts regardless of the circumstances. Texas authorities subsequently narrowed such statements to their Texas funeral directors because Missouri’s Chapter 436 does not have such a requirement.

NPS was notorious for selling preneed contracts in the absence of an agreement with provider funeral homes. Some funeral directors discovered these sales after the fact. To the extent NPS had authority to represent a provider funeral home, the agreement was often cursory in nature. Consequently, Missouri funeral homes have some justification for challenging the obligation to honor NPS contracts. In response, Missouri’s reform bill includes the following provision:

436.415. 1. Except as otherwise provided in sections 436.400 to 436.520, the provider designated in a preneed contract shall be obligated to provide final disposition, funeral or burial services and facilities, and funeral merchandise as described in the preneed contract.

2. The seller designated in a preneed contract shall be obligated to administer all payments made by, or on behalf of, a purchaser of a preneed contract and ensure the preneed contract is managed and fulfilled, and payments remitted, in compliance with sections 436.400 to 436.520 and as provided by the contract. 

 But what if the seller does not fulfill its obligations to the funeral home provider and the consumer? Is it fair to impose strict liability upon the funeral home provider?

Regulators, such as the Illinois Comptroller’s Office, seem be indicating that preneed regulation is a bigger, more complicated, task than what they are prepared for. In that vein, Missouri is warning funeral homes that they must assume the risks associated with third party sellers. Texas seems to think that consumers would be best served by the prohibition of trust-funded third party preneed contracts (154.1013). I disagree.

Insurance funded preneed is not an option for many elderly consumers. If faced with trust funding or POD/joint accounts, smaller funeral homes will be squeezed out of the trust arrangement by the expense of establishing and maintaining their own trust. Funeral homes will also have to comply with the seller licensing requirements.

Despite the allegations made against the IFDA, the state association trust may represent the only competitive preneed product available to the smaller funeral operator.