The Topeka Capital-Journal has identified the essence of the Secretary of State’s plan for Kansas cemetery regulation: addressing cemetery problems before the trusts go upside down.

There are two types of cemetery trusts: perpetual care trusts and preneed trusts. Perpetual care trusts (or permanent maintenance trusts) provide the cemetery crucial funding for mowing, and the other expenses related to care of graves, markers, roads and trees. Preneed trusts are required when cemeteries sell services and merchandise (such as vaults and markers) where delivery is deferred to a later date.

Both types of cemetery trusts have a funding liability that serves as its waterline. It is fairly common for a trust to ‘take on water’ when the value of its assets falls below the required deposit balance. As the trust takes on water, the operator’s liability will become so great that it will flip the boat, and take all aboard down.

A cemetery trust going ‘upside down’ can be an indicator the operator has used the consumers’ payments to pay bills instead of making the required deposits. These are challenging times for cemeteries, and some operators may find it easier to ‘borrow’ from the consumer than to go to the bank for a loan or to implement difficult business changes.

The Kansas Secretary of State has taken the position that it only has the tools to spot those cemetery operations that are listing dangerously to one side or the other. To avoid the expense of salvaging a shipwreck, the Secretary wants the ability to intervene earlier. To identify troubled vessels, the Secretary of State’s legislative agenda would have required monthly reporting from the cemetery operator and the trustee. However, the Secretary’s plan ran afoul of the industry’s supertanker: SCI.

At a legislative hearing, SCI took the position that the burden of monthly reporting “would greatly overshadow any benefit which could otherwise be obtained through the more practical option of annual reporting.” For the large, public companies subjected to regular reviews by the Securities Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Services, a state mandate requiring monthly reporting might be redundant and burdensome. However, the industry continues to be dominated by the independent operator, for whom the Secretary is the principal regulator.

In the next Kansas legislative session, certain compromises need to be struck for the benefit of the consumer. More frequent reporting should help flag irregularities that are symptomatic of the troubled operator. Independent fiduciary reporting is also needed as a cross check to what the operator is filing. And, if this is redundant to an operator’s existing reporting systems, the law could provide the flexibility to allow an operator to ‘clep out’ of monthly reporting.