Many state preneed regulators share the point of view that the payments made toward a preneed contract belong to the consumer until the prearranged funeral is provided. This perspective was adopted by the California Attorney General in its Eighth Cause of Action brought against the California Funeral Directors Association and its Master Trust. The AG criticizes the CFDA for investment decisions that are fairly representative of those taken by the industry as a whole.

Early on, the CMT relied upon bond funds that specialized in zero coupon government bonds. The AG points out that U.S. Treasury Bonds and similar bond funds outperformed the CMT at less risk and with lower fees.

When the bond market crashed in 2001, the CMT experienced substantial investment losses and changed investment course. The CMT began diversifying, and purchasing mortgaged back securities, foreign bonds and notes, corporate asset-backed securities and other types of securities. The AG criticizes these investments by stating “these types of investments are not insured bank accounts, are not bonds that are legal investments for commercial bank (sections 1001 et seq. of the Financial Code lists certain legal investments for commercial banks), are not government bonds, and do not comply with the Uniform Prudent Investor Act (as discussed below).”

The AG goes on to argue that the investment policies of the CMT should be set by the risk and return objectives of the preneed contract beneficiaries, and faults the defendants for having set investment policies based on their own needs.

Other states’ preneed regulators (and cemetery regulators) share the California AG’s point of view. It is common to hear a regulator characterize the preneed trust as a depository account or to express the belief the industry would be better off if preneed funding were left to the insurance companies. These regulators need to take the blinders off.

The CMT, like so many preneed trusts, went into tax exempt investments after 1988 because of Revenue Rul. 87-127. The Internal Revenue Service pushed for an income reporting method that proved impractical and burdensome. To compound the situation, the IRS applied the ruling retroactively to certain states. California was one of those states. Prior to the ruling, funeral homes had no reason to require the consumer’s social security number when selling a preneed contract. Consequently, many California trustees could not comply with the ruling with regard to existing contracts.

The ruling required grantor statements to be sent to consumers, and the consumers complained. So, funeral homes instructed their preneed fiduciaries to go into anything that didn’t require a grantor statement. While the CMT went to zero coupon bonds, the IFDA went into the poorly conceived key man insurance. Other trusts went into annuities. Various approaches were taken because the IRS could not provide reporting guidance once it changed the rules.

In stating that the preneed funds must be invested pursuant to the contract beneficiary’s objectives, the California AG has ignored the fact that a majority of these preneed contracts are probably guaranteed. Under that arrangement, the funeral home has assumed the investment risk. From a practical approach, how would the investment advisor determine the objectives of the thousands of preneed beneficiaries? In a prior post, this blog reported about an Illinois contract beneficiary’s complaint about the IFDA Master Trust. In contrast to the losses suffered by the member funeral homes, the beneficiary experienced a modest return on her non-guaranteed contract. Her complaint was that the return was not enough to keep up with rising funeral costs.

The California AG argument that the CMT must comply with the Prudent Investor Rule in a way that does not expose trust principal to risk is the equivalent to handcuffing both of the investment advisor’s hands behind his back.

Of the investment complaints made by the California AG, the one which would seem to merit the most attention would be the relationship between the former investment advisor and a CFDA board member. That CFDA board member also served as a trustee for one of the advisor’s funds, for which he received compensation. That relationship warrants an inquiry whether the relationship was disclosed and the compensation appropriate and reasonable.

The AG’s argument that the investment advisor must be independent from the seller is one shared by Missouri regulators. The Missouri regulators are quick to point to the abuses committed by NPS and its investment management firm. (See our post titled “The Zeal for Independence”). Those abuses were so bad that the Missouri legislature passed a provision prohibiting a relationship between the seller and the fund manager. This author thought the provision went too far. (See our post titled “Regulating Out of Context”). With the passage of SB 325, the Missouri Funeral Directors Association has convinced the Missouri legislature that it did go too far.

Regardless of whether the fund manager is a fiduciary employee or an independent investment advisor, that fund manager should appropriately look to the preneed seller for input about investment objectives. For the larger trust, the fiduciary and fund manager should adopt a written investment policy that, among other factors, considers the trust’s mix of guaranteed and non-guaranteed contracts. If the fund manager is an independent investment advisor, the relationship should be documented with an agreement that discloses all forms of compensation. Consistent with the SEC efforts to reform mutual funds, the disclosure should address any 12b-1 fees. The agreement with the fiduciary should also disclose all relationships the investment advisor has with the preneed seller.

To the extent the preneed contract is guaranteed, the regulator needs to recognize the seller’s economic interest in the trust’s performance. But, fiduciaries and sellers need to consider the growing number of non-guaranteed contracts and the possibility that the guaranteed contract may be serviced by a different funeral home. While the seller may have the prevailing economic interest, not all of the trust may be considered his for investment purposes.