The Mississippi Secretary of State seems to be taking a very proactive approach to the regulation of preneed and perpetual care funds. Over the course of the last few years, the Regulation and Enforcement Division of the Secretary of State’s office has averaged an enforcement proceeding per month. We were curious what type of enforcement proceedings they were pursuing, and picked one at random. The luck of draw involved a situation where the Mississippi regulators alleged the preneed seller’s preneed contract form did not adequately disclose to the consumer the tax consequences of their preneed trust. While the preneed contract form stated that income taxes may be withheld by the trust, the seller’s trustee reported the income to the contract purchaser. This did not set well with the Mississippi regulators, particularly when the consumer had no right to cancel the contract and receive a refund of the trust income.
The Mississippi regulators are not alone in their perception of the inequities of this situation. Nebraska preneed regulators are also questioning why income should ever be reported to consumers when they may never receive it. The answer is that the Internal Revenue Service forced this issue with Rev. Rul. 87-127, with the goal of requiring a single method of income reporting for preneed trusts.
The Service struggled with the situation that troubles the Mississippi and Nebraska regulators: how can the purchaser be the grantor if he/she is never entitled to a refund of the income (or even trust deposits) upon the contract’s cancellation. But, as between the consumer and the funeral home, the funeral home’s right to the trust corpus is dependent upon performance of the contract. While the consumer may never receive a refund, he/she can choose a different funeral home to service the contract. The value of that service satisfies the grantor rules of the tax code, and supports the IRS’ conclusions in the Ruling.
The inequity of the situation may have led to the passage of IRC Section 685. Given an alternative is available to the seller, the Mississippi regulators sought to force the seller to either change its contract or require the trustee to change its income reporting. But in doing so, the Mississippi regulators misstate IRC Section 685. Irrevocability is not a key characteristic of an IRC Section 685 qualified funeral trust. While the Section 685 election is viewed as irrevocable, the irrevocability of the preneed contract has no impact on Section 685. The Mississippi regulators also fail to acknowledge that Section 685 is the trustee’s election to make, not the funeral home’s. While the two need to work in concert, it is the trustee that has ultimate control over the trust’s income reporting.