It may be a mere coincidence, but the $9.7 million demand made by Comptroller Dan Hynes upon the IFDA is approximately 25% of the $39 million dollar “deficit” that the master trust had accrued by 2006. In applying the letter of the law, the Comptroller has rejected the IFDA approach of crediting individual preneed accounts with a fixed rate of growth. Instead, the Comptroller has taken the position that the 25% administration fee must be based on actual trust income, and the IFDA has failed to adequately demonstrate what the trust has earned.

As more information is released about the master trust, the more it appears that the IFDA structured the master trust to simulate a defined benefit pension plan. By establishing a fixed rate of return acceptable to funeral providers, the IFDA could apply actuarial studies to project the trust’s liability at future dates (and invest accordingly).

A generation ago, the defined benefit plan was the principal method for funding retirement benefits. Today, however, the 401K plan has replaced the defined benefit plan as the retirement vehicle of choice. Defined benefit plans have proven too costly.

If some twenty years ago the IFDA in fact chose to emulate the defined benefit model, that decision was flawed from the start. Defined benefit plans are subject to extensive rules and procedures established by ERISA. Investments, allocations, related party transactions, expenses and taxes are all subject to strict rules and tests. There are no comparable laws and regulations for preneed trusts. Without similar guidelines and supervision, the IFDA appears to have broken most of the ERISA rules.

When funeral directors fault the Comptroller for not having acted sooner to avoid the trust’s decline in value, they are failing to understand that a substantial portion of the amount written down prior to 2008 represents an accounting change from the defined benefit ‘value’ to the trust’s current approximate market value. There was nothing the Comptroller could have done to prevent that ‘deficit’ from being written down.

With regard to the trust’s value decline since 2007, the key man insurance held by the trust poses a thorny problem. The insurance policies have a mortality charge that must be satisfied from a reserve that is probably invested in a volatile mix of fixed income and equity assets. Surrendering the policies requires the trust to address certain tax penalties and policy fees, unless of course, the policies are rescinded or fail to constitute insurance.

Where does this leave the IFDA and the Comptroller’s $9.7 million claim?

Unless the IFDA has assets (including its museum of funeral customs) sufficient to pay the claim, it will have to earn its way out of this hole. As with most state associations, the master trust represents its main source of revenue. Administrative fees charged to members range from 75 basis points for large trusts to 125 basis points for smaller trusts. Besides individual account administration, these fees must also cover fees for the fiduciary, asset management and tax administration.

In a prior press release, the Illinois Secretary of State put the IFDA trust value at $200 million. For a trust this large, account administration could conceivably receive a fee of 35 to 50 basis points. Assuming the IFDA’s costs to provide such services were $250,000, the association could net $750,000 per year. If the IFDA could apply half of that fee to the Comptroller’s claim, the association is still looking at a very long row to hoe.

But the Comptroller has reasons to consider this alternative. If the claim should prove the final straw that breaks the association, the IFDA master trust may have to be broken apart and transferred to new trusts established by the individual members. This is what happened a few years ago with the Minnesota master trust. The difference with the IFDA situation is that hundreds of members are involved instead of dozens. It would be the Comptroller that must supervise hundreds of trusts instead of a single trust.