A former Kentucky funeral director has been charged with multiple felony preneed thefts, some of which occurred 25 years ago.   Various news sources report that Donald Creech began pocketing consumer preneed payments as early as 1996. The consumer preneed payments were to have been forwarded to the Kentucky Funeral Directors Association’s master trust.   Until he was forced out of the business in 2016, Mr. Creech is believed to have kept approximately $250,000 of consumer funds.

Preneed fraud is difficult to detect when a funeral director files the contract in a ‘special drawer’.  So long as the funeral director continues to own and operate the business, he will service the contract when there’s a death and no one is the wiser.  But if there is a change of ownership or control of the funeral home, the unfunded contract will come to the surface upon the contract beneficiary’s death.   That can be many years after the contract was sold, or as in Mr. Creech’s case, years after he was forced out of the business.

The statute of limitations for preneed theft does not begin to run until the fraud is discovered.  Although the theft may not be discovered until the family requests the prearranged funeral, prosecutors need not wait until there is a death to prosecute.  A key element for preneed fraud prosecution is the state law requiring the consumer funds be deposited to trust or remitted to an insurance company.  Local prosecutors may perceive that a fraud is dependent upon the consumer being denied their prearranged funeral.  However, the fraud is complete when the preneed seller fails to deposit or remit the funds pursuant to the state preneed law.

CNN underscored recently posted a good article about final expense life insurance.  Death care clients have been contacting us more frequently about this type of policy, and we will share some of their issues.

Funeral homes are backing away from the conventional life insurance policy for some of the same reasons.  Large life insurance companies are often slow to pay policy proceeds, leaving the funeral home waiting for months.   Some insurers would prefer to deal with individuals rather than funeral directors, and require additional documentation.   These additional requirements are frequently made known weeks after the funeral, forcing the funeral director to chase down family members for the requirements.  These issues have led to some funeral directors rejecting insurance policies or charging administrative fees for insurance assignments.

If the consumer intends to purchase a final expense policy for funeral and burial expenses, the following questions should be asked when shopping for a policy:

  1. What are your requirements for proceeds assignments to a funeral home or cemetery?
  2. What is the average waiting period for payment of the policy proceeds?

If you have picked out a funeral home and/or cemetery for your funeral and burial, share the insurer’s responses with them to ensure your family will be able to use the policy without one of the problems discussed above.

Dear Senator Schatz,

We appreciate that your Senate Appointment Committee has a packed hearing date for April 20th.  So, the Missouri funeral industry not represented by the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association requests a single question be asked of Ms. Solon:

If confirmed as executive director of the Division of Professional Registration, will you honor the autonomy that we the Legislature gave the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors with RSMo Section 324.001.11?

If clarification is needed why the question, please feel free to share my January 6th letter.  If the appointee and the industry can come to an understanding about the authorities that the Legislature gave the State Board, then signal to the Governor that it’s time to make independent and qualified appointments to the Board.

With legislation introduced this past January, Illinois could join those states which expressly authorize cemetery fiduciaries to take the unitrust election and make fixed distributions to cemeteries.  Senate Bill No. 3207 proposes to amend Illinois’ Cemetery Care Act to add provisions which would define ‘total return distribution’ and thereby allow care fund trusts to make distributions between 3% and 5% of the trust value.  To guard against a trust’s depletion, SB3207 would require the care fund trustee to adopt a written investment policy aimed at achieving growth and income.  The bill also includes investment performance floors that could require the fixed distribution percentage to be decreased (or have the trust convert back to a net income distribution) if trust’s investment performance results in a 10% value decline.

Sensing that bill as introduced did not go far enough, an amendment has been proposed to expressly authorize small care fund trusts to be commingled within a master trust.  Pursuant to a new Section 3.1, a care fund trustee would apply to the Illinois Comptroller’s Office to establish a master trust.  As discussed in prior posts, the master trust concept is crucial to achieving investment diversification for small trust funds (a need for economies of scale).  Without adequate diversification, small trust funds could not achieve the investment returns needed to avoid depletion of the trust.  And as discussed in the previously linked post, few states have active cemetery associations.  But Illinois is the exception to that rule.  Since SB3207, as amended, touches all the bases, we would have to conclude the ICFHA is pushing to get this bill passed.

With Governor Parson withdrawing all four of his Missouri Funeral Board appointments, the industry is asking what will happen next.  The Governor’s office had been watching the festering dispute between the Division and the State Board, but was unsure whether the industry cared.  While the MFDEA’s support for the Division acting director was undeniable, the Governor was being warned that the association did not have the industry’s support.  The industry responded not through the association but through individual funeral directors expressing opposition to their respective Senators.   Objections from funeral directors forced Senators and the Governor to look beyond MFDEA support for Ms. Solon and her actions, and instead at the underlying law and facts.

Ms. Solon’s confirmation hearing is scheduled this coming week, and we expect that she will receive the benefit of the doubt by the Senate and will be confirmed.  By the benefit of the doubt, we mean that Ms. Solon is a newcomer to the funeral industry and would not have implemented her cost savings plan, the restructuring of the Board and the termination of the Board staff without advice of multiple individuals perceived as having deep knowledge of the industry.  An appointee that followed the advice of a single individual without cross checking that advice would be faulted for poor judgment, and appropriately denied confirmation.  Ms. Solon received seriously flawed advice from more than one industry ‘expert’.

Ms. Solon will be given an opportunity to re-chart her course with the State Board.  To provide assurance to the industry that the next State Board is autonomous, the Governor will not simply delegate the appointee process to the Division.  We anticipate that some deference will be given to the Senate regarding the selection process.  But appointees should expect inquiries whether they can look past the events of 2021 and strive to create an effective working relationship with the Division director.  Appointees will also need to be impartial when investigating what licensee(s) sought to derail the preneed examination process.

When an Association Press story broke a few months ago, the MFDEA response was to suggest that the reporter had been influenced by individuals who were anti-Governor Parson and anti-Division.  But the reality is that funeral directors opposed to Ms. Solon’s actions are supporters of Governor Parson.  Multiple parties reached out to the Governor to request he get involved.  The Governor was warned that the industry was angry that the Division’s acting director violated state laws to replace the Board with licensees who would follow her directives.  Funeral directors believe State Board members should be owner/operators with years of experience running a funeral home.  Board members should draw on that experience when deciding the appropriate discipline when violations occur.  Board members should not be part-time employees or individuals that retired from the business decades ago.  RSMo Section 333.151 is not as difficult to read as the MFDEA suggests:

Each member, other than the public member, appointed shall possess either a license to practice embalming or a license to practice funeral directing in this state or both said licenses and shall have been actively engaged in the practice of embalming or funeral directing for a period of five years next before his or her appointment.

MFDEA members like one past president have written to the Governor to commend the Division acting director for having put an end to the State Board’s “photographic surveillance” of funeral homes.  This past president of MFDEA stated that instead of actually inspecting the funeral home, the Board inspectors were taking pictures which were then reviewed in Jefferson City for alleged violations.  The past president longed for the days when he served on the State Board when real inspectors were sent to funeral homes.  This past president of the MFDEA did not obviously read our blog post Missouri’s Gottcha Board: Digging Deeper.

If he had read the blog instead of relying solely upon the MFDEA for his information he would understand that the Division was blocking the State Board from hiring real inspectors.  He would know that the Division’s CIU inspectors did not know difference between a hole in the bottom of crematory retort and the thermostat on the nearby wall.  He would know that this funeral home had performed hundreds of funerals without a licensed funeral director.  He would know that the funeral home had sold hundreds of thousands of dollars of preneed without a license and without reporting them to the State Board.  But then he didn’t know these things because the MFDEA did not report these problems to their members.  Nor did the MFDEA want to explain why the Division dismissed the lawsuit against the funeral home before it had corrected its violations.  That would conflict with the endorsement already given to the Division’s acting director.  Had that endorsement been sealed with a promise from the Division?

In this post we are breaking a rule that we have followed since the startup of the blog: maintaining the anonymity of a source.   In our post Derailing Missouri Preneed Reform we referred to our source as having an irrefutable reputation within the industry.  Those who follow this blog instantly understood that the statement had come from MFDEA executive director Don Otto.  Mr. Otto’s credibility is a joke within the industry.  In a recent email to MFDEA members, Mr. Otto makes a series of denials, but never once addressed the question that Senators have:  Why was Randall Jennings among the State Board staff terminated?

Who was that preneed seller that told you Randall Jennings had called him a Republican puppet?

In an earlier post we reported how the acting director for the Division of Professional Registration advised the Governor that State Board changes were needed to be made “to increase efficiency and fiscal responsibility.”  Improvements were needed, “especially with inspections and financial examinations”, and that there could be potential cost savings of $200,000.  In a weekly report to the Governor, the Division advised:

The Division is working with Kyle Aubuchon and Caroline Colter on filling vacancies and replacing board members on expired terms for the Embalmers board and several others. The Division appreciates that people have been willing to serve on expired terms but the Division is excited to have new members who bring new ideas and expertise to protect the people of Missouri.

The question we have is whether the Division’s acting director consulted with the Senate Committee on Professional Registration Oversight before implementing such changes.

With a 2021 projected budget of $513,795.00, the preneed consumer audit fees account for $397,500.00.  With Senate Bill No.1, the Missouri Legislature authorized the consumer fee to provide the Board the funds to audit the funeral homes for compliance with the new law.  It was not the Legislature’s intent that the Division cut the Board expenditures to the bone so that consumer audit funding would pour over to the State’s General Revenue Fund.

An issue lost in the debate whether to confirm the Gubernatorial appointments of Sheila Solon and four members to the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is the autonomy granted to state boards by the Missouri Legislature through RSMo. Section 324.001.11.  Through subsections (3) and (4) the Legislature limits the Division of Professional  Registration’s authorities over the management functions of certain boards and commissions (including the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors), and vests in those boards and commissions the authority to hire and retain non-clerical personnel.  For much of 2021, acting director Solon and the State Board argued over inspectors.   Open records requests have produced numerous emails documenting the Board’s executive director’s requests for an explanation why the Board could not hire its own inspector.   The Division and the Department of Commerce and Insurance simply stalled those requests or lied to the Board’s executive director.  When the State Board sought to hire an attorney to defend its authorities under Section 324.001.11, the Division then began looking for replacements for the four Board members serving on expired terms, advising the Governor that changes were needed “especially with inspections and financial examinations”, and that there could be potential cost savings of $200,000.

If the State Board were ineffective or inefficient in conducting funeral home inspections and preneed audits, the Division should first have gone on record with the State Board that changes were needed.  If the dispute between the State Board and the Division then continued, the Division should then have gone to the Senate Committee on Professional Registration Oversight.  The disputing parties would then have the Senate Committee’s input.  Instead, the Division ignored Missouri law and took matters into her hands and misinformed the Governor.