While the reasons are open to debate, it is common knowledge within the funeral industry that a small percentage of consumers cancel their preneed contracts. Consequently, some funeral directors tend to view their preneed block of business with a degree of certainty. Performance of the contracts, and recognition of the revenues, seems to be just a matter of timing. A few state laws reflect the perception that performance of the preneed contract is a ‘lock’. For 37 years, Missouri law allowed preneed sellers to withdraw trust income. Nevada’s law has similar provisions. Preneed trust income became a source of funds that could subsidize funeral home operations.

While the preneed subsidy had long been a source of frustration for certain Missouri officials, they were powerless to stop the practice until the failure of National Prearranged Services. With the 2009 passage of Senate Bill No.1, Missouri officials feel they have a law that they can use to force a new business model upon the funeral industry.

In the case of the California Master Trust, the Department of Consumer Affairs has taken a similar position with regard to an administrative fee that has been paid to participating funeral homes for decades. Consistent with the historic industry view, the CFDA response relies in part upon the preneed guarantee and the risk assumed by the funeral home.

The position becomes tenuous when the administrative fee is judged on terms of whether a necessary service has been rendered to the trust, and whether the amount paid is reasonable for the services received. It is apparent from the documents that the DCA will also apply that analysis to what the CFDA has charged the trust. Depending upon how this controversy is resolved, other states’ regulators may ask whether the administrative fees charged to the master trust are appropriate.

As a recent Funeral Service Insider comment suggests, some industry associations have also become dependent upon the preneed subsidy. The classic guaranteed argument loses traction when facts such as those in Illinois emerge. By one account, non-guaranteed preneed contracts accounted for one third of the contracts administered by the IFDA.

But, in defense of the CMT, preneed trusts are labor-intensive enterprises where the funeral home, administrator and fiduciary have shared responsibilities. In its challenge of a different CMT issue (the maintenance of preneed records within California), the DCA acknowledges this reality while discussing the funeral home’s recordkeeping duties. Effective field examinations will require that certain preneed records be maintained at the funeral home. But, is it reasonable to impose greater administrative requirements on the funeral home without allowing any compensation to be paid to them?

The emerging regulatory challenge to the preneed subsidy is premised on the position that the funeral home’s right to preneed funds does not vest until the contract is performed. That position is consistent with Missouri’s efforts to improve portability. But, regulators must also find a consistent and reasonable position with regard to the services that they mandate from the funeral home. 

(The Funeral Service Insider excerpt was included by special permission from Kates-Boylston Publications and Funeral Service Insider.)