For the past few years, some Kansas cemeteries have been getting nasty grams from their regulator about their care fund trustee’s treatment capital gains taxes. Kansas, like most states, requires a portion of each grave space sale (interment right) to be contributed to a fund or trust for the future care of the cemetery. Kansas law calls that fund a permanent maintenance fund. Missouri law calls it an endowed care trust. In some states it is defined as a perpetual care trust.

Despite what the fund is called, these state laws universally seek to provide the cemetery a source of income to pay for the upkeep of graves (while keeping the contributions in tact). That latter objective, protecting the contributions, brings cemeteries and regulators into conflict when the fund realizes capital gains and losses. The Kansas cemetery regulator has been taking the conflict a step further by interpreting the law to preclude the trustee from paying taxes or fees out of capital gains.

The Kansas regulators (like many of their peers) perceive a ‘looming’ problem with cemeteries: abandonment and the eventual transfer to the municipality or county. Cemeteries are dependent upon the cash flow that comes from space sales (and the accompanying interment fees and marker sales). When a cemetery runs out of spaces, grave maintenance will be completely dependent upon income from the care fund. To minimize the financial burden placed on the county, the Kansas regulator has adopted a very strict interpretation of the law for the purpose of preserving the care fund for the day the cemetery transfers to the government. This interpretation not only precludes the fund from distribution capital gains earnings, but also the trustee’s payment of taxes and fees from the earnings. The regulator reasons that capital gains must be allocated to principal, and the law forbids all distribution of principal.

This puts the cemetery into a bind. The staple of care fund investments, the fixed income security, has been bearing returns of less than 2% for years. When trust expenses are netted from those returns, there is little left to distribute to the cemetery. Necessity has dictated that these funds begin investing in equities. But, the Kansas philosophy would penalize the cemetery. Not only is the cemetery prohibited from using the equity earnings, the cemetery must also pay the taxes incurred on those earnings (reducing what is received from the care fund). The only ‘winner’ is the county. Or is it? If the eventual abandonment takes years, and the cemetery has been deprived income for upkeep and repairs, isn’t the county getting the property in worse shape?