The financial fallout from the failures of NPS and IFDA regarding compliance with state and federal laws has accelerated the decision of many funeral directors to switch to the non-guaranteed preneed contract. That non-guaranteed contract represents a fundamental change in the relationship that is established between the consumer, the funeral home and the preneed fiduciary.
The trust-funded preneed contract establishes a fiduciary account that has two beneficiaries: the funeral home and the consumer. It is quite common for fiduciaries to administer trusts with beneficiaries with competing interests. With competing beneficiary interests, the fiduciary must look to the trust provisions, and applicable state law, to determine who may exercise discretionary authorities regarding the trust.
State preneed laws are written in response to existing practices, and historically, the guaranteed contract defined preneed practices. When the funeral home sells a guaranteed contract it is the funeral home that assumes the risk of the trust’s investment performance. With that risk, preneed statutes typically vest in the funeral home the authority to establish the trust, to hire and replace the fiduciary, and to participate in decisions such as investments. State preneed laws have generally been vague or silent about administrative and accounting issues, and fiduciaries have turned to the funeral home for instructions regarding accounting and income reporting.
With the non-guaranteed contract, the funeral home has both deferred the sale of the funeral (until death) and transferred the risk of investment performance to the consumer. Appropriately, the consumer may have questions to put to the funeral home, the fiduciary and the preneed regulator:
- Must the fiduciary follow a different investment policy with regard to funds held for guaranteed contracts versus non-guaranteed contracts?
- How is trust asset value allocated to the contracts?
- How is income and expenses allocated among the types of contracts?
- How will income and expenses be reported?
For many funeral homes, the latter issue (the reporting of trust income) drove both investment policies and accounting procedures. No one likes to get a tax statement on a preneed contract, and so many funeral homes went to tax exempt bonds in belief this relieved the trust from reporting income to the consumer. But, the IRS requires tax-exempt income to be reported because it impacts the taxability of social security benefits. If the consumer hasn’t received an accurate statement of income and expenses, his account has exposure for a $50 penalty if the trust isn’t being reported pursuant to a Form 1041QFT. (This accuracy reporting penalty more than likely led the IFDA corporate fiduciary to effect a Section 685 election for all master trust accounts.)
For the upcoming wave of non-guaranteed contracts, there are only two permissible methods of reporting income: grantor statements to the consumer or a Section 1041qft. Regardless of which income reporting method is used, the funeral home and fiduciary can not simply park the consumer’s funds in a tax-exempt fund. The preneed trust’s allocation of income and expenses for tax reporting will be similar for both approaches, thus making the trust’s tax return a tool for regulators when evaluating the fiduciary’s administration and accounting.