In the days that followed the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association being placed into receivership, some of the WFDA’s sister associations were quick to point out they had ‘checks and balances’ that would protect consumers’ funds from the problems that tripped up the Wisconsin Funeral Trust. As we reported in our last post, a crucial ‘check and balance’ missing from the WFT was investment oversight. The fact that a trust has a corporate trustee does not necessarily mean that fiduciary has responsibility for monitoring the prudence of the investments. Corporate fiduciaries often look to uniform trust codes for the authority to delegate investment responsibilities. If a grantor wishes to use an outside asset manager, general trust laws will accommodate those wishes. The problem with preneed trusts (and cemetery endowment funds) is that there is more than one “grantor” to the preneed trust.
We have previously stated our support for allowing a relationship between preneed seller and a qualified fund manager. However, the fiduciary must provide a ‘check and balance’ to that relationship by maintaining responsibility for the investments. The ‘scandals’ from Missouri, Illinois, California and Wisconsin stem from a lack of investment oversight. Missouri’s regulators responded to NPS with a law that precluded any relationship between the advisor and the seller. Appropriately, the Missouri association obtained revisions to allow an agency relationship between its fund manager and the trustee. However, the Missouri law does not go far enough to require the disclosures we recommended in 2011. Funeral directors and consumers need to know that Missouri preneed fiduciaries ‘have their back’ when it comes to investment oversight.
Investment oversight is also a concern for cemetery regulators. Kansas’ cemetery regulators were dismayed to find that a corporate trustee had turned over the investment reigns to a Hutchinson cemetery operator. The operator hoped to cover declining revenues (and the failure to make trust deposits) with higher investment returns. For months, the operator attempted to hide the ball from the auditor, but eventually it was discovered that those investments had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The investment supervision issue is also a concern for Nebraska regulators. As they prep the death care industry for legislation in 2013, they raise this issue:
Seller’s Power to Direct Investments
A question has arisen regarding the seller’s ability to direct the trustee’s investment decisions. Specifically, should the seller be able to instruct the trustee to deposit or invest funds in securities that do not meet the trustee’s own investment guidelines?
If it is determined that the trustee should be free from the seller’s investment influence, section 12-1107 should be amended to reflect this fact.
In what may be a perfectly legal arrangement, Illinois funeral directors have handed off investment oversight to their new fund managers. The master trust instrument carefully outlines the code provisions which authorize the delegation of investment authorities. But the document goes that extra step of exculpating the trustee from responsibilities for investment oversight. Where is the check and balance in that structure? Are the industry’s expectations so high that a trustee will not accept the fund without a hold harmless? If the industry does not establish its own ‘checks and balances’ with regard to investment supervision, the authority to participate in the investment decisions could be taken away.