Preneed scandals in Illinois, Missouri, Texas, and California have state regulators moving to implement new audit procedures. But with new laws passed in the wake of NPS and state master trust problems, the frequency and scope of the future audit could change dramatically. It is no secret that the scope of the preneed audit in Missouri is work in progress. When asked how the audit was being revised for its licensees, Illinois regulators politely declined to provide their written guidelines. Regulators in Kansas and Nebraska are also evaluating their audit procedures. But, the legal battle being waged in California provides a glimpse of one regulator’s intent to change the scope of the preneed audit.
The Ninth and Tenth Causes of Actions from the California Attorney General’s lawsuit against the California Master Trust allege that defendants either failed to maintain, or to produce, the preneed records required by law and regulation. California Code of Regulations, title 16, Section 1267 sets out those records that must be maintained by the funeral home. The regulation dates back 30 years, and reflects a view of the preneed transaction that is no longer consistent with the view taken by the Attorney General, and with the direction of the audit and lawsuit.
In a nutshell, the regulation asks for records which are intended to confirm whether the preneed payments were deposited to trust. The underlying principal is that the preneed contract represents a sale that the funeral home will book to its GAAP financial records. The regulation defines the funeral home’s cash receipts journal and general ledger as preneed records. The requirements contemplate that the funeral home will book these sales and payments for compliance with income tax reporting. By requiring the financial books and records, the preneed auditor can then track a consumer payment from funeral home receipt to the preneed trust. While the funeral director might not fear the preneed regulator, he is not likely to hide the income from Uncle Sam.
However, the California litigation is not about money that didn’t make it to trust, it is about the administration of the trust assets. In attempting to investigate the administration of the trust, the preneed auditor went beyond what the regulation calls for. The best evidence of the expanding scope of the audit is the defendants’ response letter to the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau audit findings. The response letter indicates that one funeral home was cited for failing to have the following records:
• All correspondence with the trust administrator
• Copies of contracts that provide services to the trust
• Records of administrative costs
• Records of administrative costs allocated among the trustee and its vendors
• The portfolio of trust investments
When questioned about its authority for the requests, the Bureau reply stated that the trustee failed to make available “complete financial records for all preneed contracts and arrangements”. This answer fails to clarify what trust and financial records the funeral home must maintain on its premises.
What seems to come through from the California litigation is that original approach to the audit, ensuring the funds made it to trust, and leaving trust oversight to the independent CPA and an opinion, failed the California consumer. But, could the Bureau have better protected the consumer if the financial records have been kept at the individual funeral homes? (No, not without additional guidelines on the management of master trusts and pooled accounts.) And even if such regulations existed, it would be expecting too much from the auditor whose duties entail visits to hundreds of the funeral homes.
While the field auditor is an important element of the preneed compliance program, the program has to include the administration of preneed trust. Does this mean the funeral director must maintain correspondence and records related to the trust’s administration? The best course of action would be to establish a file for all trust related documents and correspondence. With the increase of preneed portability and the sale of non-guaranteed contracts, the funeral director’s reliance on the ‘guaranteed contract defense’ becomes more tenuous. In a limited sense, the funeral director is becoming a fund manager on behalf of the consumer.