According to Wikipedia,

Regulation is "controlling human or societal behavior by rules or restrictions." Regulation can take many forms including legal restrictions promulgated by a government authority…….

So, regulators are charged with the task of interpreting “legal restrictions” and determining what businesses can or cannot do. When the applicable law is well drafted, and further defined by regulations, a business has the means to research compliance and develop appropriate practices and procedures. A business may only need to seek regulatory approval when implementing a novel practice. In the context of Securities regulation or ERISA, procedures exist for businesses to seek written guidance before implementing a new practice. But, as California funeral directors have found out, that is not the case with preneed regulation.

The dispute between the California Funeral Directors Association and the DCA’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau was widely reported when allegations of mismanagement and lost funds were made. In typical fashion, the Bureau set out its findings regarding the Master Trust. The Association’s administrative subsidiary (the “FDSC”) responded. The Bureau was not satisfied, and a war of written responses ensued. Frustrated with the Bureau, the FDSC has now filed for an injunction. (For a detailed explanation of the situation, click here for a recent Memorial Business Journal article.*)

The FDSC would seem to be asking the Bureau to step out of the traditional regulator’s box, and discuss some practical approaches to the issues. We’ve heard your positions and criticism, but tell us how to reconcile these dated, and somewhat disjunctive, code sections, and apply that to today’s facts and circumstances.

History has a way of repeating itself. In 1988, after years of audits, the IRS decided to force a universal method of income reporting on preneed trusts by issuing Rev. Rul. 87-127. Other than terminating reporting methods that it found objectionable, the Service hadn’t given much thought to whether the industry could comply with the new reporting requirements. Nor did the Service think to provide compliance procedures. For more than eight years, the industry struggled to find a way to comply with the grantor reporting requirements. (Some funeral directors are still struggling today.)

If effective preneed reform is the goal, death care regulators need to do more than inform operators what they cannot do. These laws tend to be ambiguous, and regulators need to participate in the process of finding workable solutions.

*Reprinted with permission from the November 18, 2010 issue of the Memorial Business Journal. To subscribe please call 609-815-8145.