Trusts and estates litigators often see families at their very worst, fighting over everything from money to decision-making authority, and virtually anything else imaginable. So, it should come as no surprise that there have been disputes over the disposition of human remains, which necessitated legislative action to resolve these conflicts.
New York Public Health Law section 4201 “sets forth a prioritized list of [individuals] who shall presumptively have the right to direct the disposition of a decedent’s remains” (Maurer v Thibeault, 20 Misc 3d 631, 632 [Sup Ct, Cortland County 2008]). An agent appointed in a written instrument executed in accordance with section 4201 shall have first priority (Public Health Law § 4201 [requiring, among other things, that the principal and agent sign the instrument]). Absent a written instrument, the following individuals shall have priority to control the disposition of a decedent’s remains, in descending order:
(1) “the decedent’s surviving spouse;”
(2) “the decedent’s surviving domestic partner;”
(3) “any of the decedent’s surviving children eighteen years of age or older;”
(4) “either of the decedent’s surviving parents;”
(5) “any of the decedent’s surviving siblings eighteen years of age or older;”
(6) “a guardian appointed pursuant to article seventeen or seventeen-A of the surrogate’s court procedure act or article eighty-one of the mental hygiene law;”
(7) “any person eighteen years of age or older who would be entitled to share in the estate of the decedent as specified in section 4-1.1 of the estates, powers and trusts law, with the person closest in relationship having the highest priority;”
(8) “a duly appointed fiduciary of the estate of the decedent;”
(9) “a close friend or relative who is reasonably familiar with the decedent’s wishes, including the decedent’s religious or moral beliefs, when no one either on this list is reasonable available, willing, or competent to act, provided that such person has executed a written statement pursuant to subdivision seven of this section [stating that he or she has no knowledge that the decedent executed a written instrument containing directions for the disposition of his or her remains]; or”
(10) “a chief fiscal officer of a county or a public administrator appointed pursuant to article twelve or thirteen of the surrogate’s court procedure act, or any other person acting on behalf of the decedent, provided that such person has executed a written statement pursuant to subdivision seven of this section” (id.).
The person with priority must faithfully carry out the decedent’s directions to the extent permitted by the law and the circumstances (id.).
In Maurer v Thibeault, the petitioner did something that no parent should have to do, she requested permission to determine the disposition of her deceased daughter’s remains after the daughter died under suspicious circumstances (20 Misc3d at 632-37). Although the respondent, the decedent’s husband, asserted that he should decide how his wife was laid to rest, the petitioner argued that the respondent should not be given priority because he was estranged from the decedent and, therefore, did not qualify as her “surviving spouse” under the statute (id.).
Noting that the decedent never executed a written instrument in accordance with section 4201, the court then addressed whether the respondent had priority over the petitioner as the decedent’s surviving spouse (id.). The court concluded that he did not (id.). In doing so, the court relied on evidence that established the decedent’s hatred, loathing and fear for the respondent immediately before her death (id.). The court also referenced the police report she filed against the respondent just one month prior to her death, accusing him of attacking and strangling her “to the point of unconsciousness” (id.).
Based upon those facts and the line of cases precluding a separated or estranged person from qualifying as a “surviving spouse,” the court rejected the respondent’s claim of priority (id.). The court also granted the petitioner’s request for permission to control the disposition of the decedent’s remains (id.). As the decedent’s surviving parent, the petitioner had priority to do so, since there was no written instrument, the respondent did not qualify as a surviving spouse, and the decedent had no domestic partner or child age 18 or older (id.).
In New York, the disposition of remains is presumptively governed by section 4201. Absent a valid written instrument appointing an agent for that purpose, section 4201 sets forth which individuals shall have priority to make decisions concerning the disposition of remains.