Who can honestly say they saw this one coming?

 On July 5, 2012, the Missouri State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors filed a complaint with the Missouri Administrative Hearing Commission against a Missouri funeral home for alleged violations of Chapter 436, including several transactions that predate Senate Bill No. 1. So, three years after the passage of Senate Bill No. 1, the State Board has initiated its first formal proceeding against a preneed seller.  SB1 armed the State Board with several new tools, including the preneed financial examination.   Pointing to the massive fraud committed by National Prearranged Services, the State’s regulators convinced the Missouri Legislature that such tools were necessary to protect the consumer.  What misconduct did the new financial examination tool uncover that warranted a formal complaint: the funeral home failed to report, and adequately document, insurance assignments and beneficiary designations.

The crux of the State Board‘s argument is stated in Paragraphs 49 and 50 of the Complaint:

49.       A preneed contract is sold when a seller accepts an insurance assignment or is named as owner (prior to August 28, 2009) or beneficiary of a life insurance policy pursuant to an arrangement between the seller and the consumer to ensure payment for the final disposition of the consumer’s dead human body and for funeral or burial services, facilities or merchandise upon the death of the consumer.


50.       ******  Funeral sold and entered into preneed contracts with those consumers specified in Exhibit A when ******* Funeral accepted insurance assignment or was named as beneficiary on an insurance policy when the consumer made such assignment or designation with the intent of paying ******* Funeral for the costs of his or her own final disposition.


The State Board’s position (with regard to insurance assignments and beneficiary designations made prior to August 28, 2009) is based on the following:

31. Section 436.005, RSMo (2000), set forth definitions for the Old Law and stated, in relevant portion:


(5) "Preneed contract", any contract or other arrangement which requires the current payment of money or other property in consideration for the final disposition of a dead human body, or for funeral or burial services or facilities, or for funeral merchandise, where such disposition, services, facilities or merchandise are not immediately required, including, but not limited to, an agreement providing for a membership fee or any other fee having as its purpose the furnishing of burial or funeral services or merchandise at a discount, except for contracts of insurance, including payment of proceeds from contracts of insurance, unless the preneed seller or provider is named as the owner or beneficiary in the contract of insurance[.]


What the State Board is asserting is that Chapter 436 has always defined as a preneed contract any insurance assignment or beneficiary designation made in favor of a funeral home prior to the death of the insured.   That will come as news to most of the industry (99.9% or so), and cause some operators to ask what those six Board Members are smoking.  But for those individuals who regularly attend the meetings of the State Board, this position may not necessarily reflect the views of the State Board members.

The Board’s staff began pressing the State Board more than two years ago to provide clarification on when insurance assignments and beneficiary designations constitute a preneed contract.   At that meeting in Festus, Missouri, the staff also reminded the Board and the industry of the funeral director’s duties under Chapter 208 to make inquiries to the Third Party Liability Unit (of the Department of Social Services) before making refunds to families.   The insurance issue resurfaced last fall (with the conclusion of the initial onsite financial examinations).  Since then, the issue has been bounced back and forth like a ping pong ball between the staff and the Board.   The staff has made various proposals, which the Board has rejected. 

As we have previously suggested, this transaction is one which should be documented by a contract.  Some within the industry assert there is no contract.  I disagree.  The policy owner has made the assignment or beneficiary designation with the expectation that the funeral home will apply the proceeds to their funeral.  The funeral director understands that expectation, and often relies on Chapter 208 for recommending the assignment of insurance.  I agree with the staff in that the ‘professional trust and confidence’ contemplated by Section 333.330.2(14) dictates that this transaction be documented by a contract.  The staff would then argue that any contract made by a funeral home that contemplates future performance must be a preneed contract, and ergo, a Chapter 436 contract.  I disagree. 

Chapter 436 was first enacted in 1965, but was re-written in 1982.  The 1982 law provided the industry the first definition of a “preneed contract”, which was the same as that cited by the Complaint, except that it did not include the following: 

except for contracts of insurance, including payment of proceeds from contracts of insurance, unless the preneed seller or provider is named as the owner or beneficiary in the contract of insurance[.]

There was sufficient confusion whether insurance policies were covered by Chapter 436 that the preceding phrase was added by legislation that took effect in 1986.  The 1986 legislation was hotly debated, and the product of various compromises, and the result included a horribly ambiguous definition.  A literal interpretation of the new “preneed contract” definition would find that an insurance contract is not a preneed contract ‘unless the preneed seller or provider is named as the owner or beneficiary in the contract of insurance’.    But when the seller or provider is named as owner or beneficiary, the contract of insurance is a preneed contract.   That bears repeating: the contract of insurance is a preneed contract.  What the heck does that mean?

The old law was poorly drafted, and ambiguous, in many respects.  There always has been confusion over the extent to which Chapter 436 governed insurance funded preneed.   The old law was written with one preneed transaction in mind: the trust funded guaranteed contract.   Joint accounts were addressed as the first afterthought, and then four years later, insurance was added as another afterthought.   For years the Board staff struggled with whether insurance funded contracts had to be deposited to trust.   And now, 30 years after the old law was enacted, the staff (or is it the State Board) wants to begin enforcing those ambiguous provisions?

What motivations does the staff have for pressing the State Board on the insurance assignment issue?   The need for clarity was the initial explanation given.  The next justification given was the need to protect the consumer.   Both of these have merit, but one can’t help but wonder if Chapter 208 may also provide a third motivation. 

It would be political suicide for any candidate to suggest that Missouri needs to raise taxes.  Instead, state agencies look for other ways to generate revenues, whether that be through fees or charges.  Accordingly, someone in Jefferson City may also be looking at the funeral home’s obligations under Chapter 214.  In conjunction with that 2010 meeting in Festus, the staff has incorporated a MO HealthNet page on the State Board website.   That page is meant as notice to the industry that funeral homes have a duty to make inquiries to Department of Social Services before making refunds back to families.   (You funeral directors can now add tax collector to your job description.)  But that duty only applies to Chapter 436 contracts.

The Complaint seems a heavy handed attempt to force the State Board to define the insurance assignments as Chapter 436 contracts.  While there is need for clarity and consumer protection, neither the old law nor SB1 was intended to regulate the assignment of an existing insurance policy.  SB1 is intended to regulate the sale of contracts where performance is deferred to a future date, and the administration of the consumer’s payments.    The staff must twist SB1 provisions to reach the conclusion that all insurance assignments give rise to a preneed contract.   That approach is not much different from the one NPS used with the old law. 

So, what are those State Board members to do?  Here is a proposal for their consideration.