Every funeral director has faced the situation where Mrs. Smith comes in with an insurance policy and her funeral plans. Often, Mrs. Smith has gone to trouble of designating the funeral home as the policy beneficiary before having discussed her plans with the director. Often funeral directors file the policy and plan away until Mrs. Smith’s time of need. Frequently, the file includes nothing more than Mrs. Smith’s policy and funeral preferences, and this is troubling for Missouri’s new preneed audit staff.

Although Missouri’s preneed reforms went into effect more than 2 years ago, the new examination process has gotten off to a slow start. The first hurdle was funding. The new law imposed a $36 per preneed contract fee. New licensing fees were also imposed. However, these fees were tied to annual reports and renewals that were not due until October 31, 2010.

The Division of Professional Registration has also had the task of hiring preneed examiners and establishing audit guidelines. Defining those audit guidelines has proven difficult due to fact Missouri has hundreds of funeral home sellers that have been operating with little regulatory input or oversight for 25 years. Consequently, every single examination poses its own unique issues. But the one issue that must be surfacing with regularity is Mrs. Smith and her insurance policy.

After ‘practicing’ on the State Board’s industry members, the examinations began in earnest this past summer. By the Board’s September meeting, Mrs. Smith and her insurance policy were on the agenda. The staff floated a proposed regulation regarding a definition of preneed that would trigger Chapter 436 reporting requirements when Mrs. Smith walked through the funeral home’s door. Once the funeral director was put on notice of the insurance beneficiary designation, he must either report it or take action to reverse the designation.

The staff’s reasoning is that a contract has formed when the funeral director is put on notice of the policy designation. That contract is for a funeral arrangement that is not immediately needed, and therefore falls within the definition set out in Section 436.504(7). The staff further argues that this interpretation is needed to protect the consumer when the only evidence of the contract that exists was a ‘handshake’. While the staff has a point regarding the risks of the handshake, this transaction falls outside the legislative intent of SB1.

SB1 regulates the industry’s ‘sale’ of preneed contracts where consumer funds are paid to the funeral home or cemetery. The law’s intent is to make sure the preneed seller deposits those funds to trust or a joint account, or pays them to an insurance company. In contrast, Mrs. Smith may have purchased her Prudential Life policy from the same agent who sold her car and home insurance.

But, the staff’s concerns are not without merit. If Mrs. Smith’s children do not know of either the insurance policy or the handshake with the funeral director, they may go to another funeral home. The staff also asks what it is to stop the funeral director from retaining the insurance proceeds when the family has gone to a competitor.

To ensure Mrs. Smith’s wishes are fulfilled, the funeral home should document the policy designation with a written contract (which provides for a return of the proceeds if a different funeral home is used). The contract should also spell out the promises with regard to prices.

However, Missouri consumers would be better served if SB1 fees were spent towards audit procedures that focus on preneed sales, and not Mrs. Smith and her insurance policy. Missouri’s Chapter 333 provides the State Board with authority to implement additional protections when the funeral director accepts an insurance policy in exchange for a handshake.