By: Justin M. Smigelsky, Esq.
In addition to the traditional will contest, estate litigation includes, among numerous other potential claims, claims related to funeral arrangements, burial, and disinterment. Most disputes in this regard must be resolved by determining the authorized person to make such decisions.
Sadly, estate litigation may first manifest itself in disputes regarding funeral arrangements and the burial of a loved one. The right to control funerals and disposition of a loved one’s remains is set forth by statute. Pursuant to statute, a testator/testatrix may appoint a person in his or her Will to control his or her funeral and disposition of human remains. It is not necessary that the appointed funeral representative be the executor/executrix of the Will, and the designated representative may act prior to the Will being admitted to probate. In the event that the decedent died intestate (without a Will) the right to control the funeral and disposition, unless otherwise ordered by the Court, is set forth by statute in the following priority:
- Surviving spouse (unless an active restraining order exists or an intentional killing of the decedent by the surviving spouse has occurred);
- Majority of surviving adult children;
- Surviving parent(s);
- Majority of siblings;
- Other next of kin according to degree of consanguinity; and
- If no known relative, any representative providing written authorization.
With respect to the disinterment of human remains in New Jersey, a separate statute controls. In litigation involving disinterment of a loved one, the Judge may consider the decedent’s wishes, however expressed. In recent disputes regarding disinterment, the New Jersey Supreme Court has noted several key differences between disinterment and interment rights – as opposed to interment, disinterment is strongly disfavored, and the shared authority to disinter is provided, with joint written authorization required, to the surviving spouse, any adult children, and the owner of the interment space. As clearly set forth in the relevant statutes, and as highlighted in recent reported decisions, a surviving spouse’s primary authority to make an interment decision is reduced to authority shared with all surviving adult children of the decedent.
Because estate and trust administration and litigation requires specialized knowledge, you may wish to consult with an experienced attorney if you are either a fiduciary or beneficiary of an estate or trust. Specifically, you may wish to contact an attorney if you have questions regarding burial or disinterment of a loved one, the probate process, administration of an estate or trust, fiduciary obligations, preparation of a formal or informal accounting, refunding bonds and releases, and the procedures for filing a formal accounting or exceptions thereto. This article is for information purposes only, and is neither legal advice nor the creation of an attorney client relationship.
Justin M. Smigelsky, Esq. / Timothy J. Little, P.C. – 2016 – All Rights Reserved