I have been saying for years that taking the time to put things in order in proper legal documents can save a lot of headache and money in the long run. “Careful planning can prevent a crisis” has been one of my professional mottos for many years now. New Jersey has a statute that allows a person to sign a document that designates a Funeral and Disposition Representative who has authority to make the decisions about final disposition of the body at death. A person can write these instructions in a Last Will and Testament or can sign a separate document and provide it to whoever might need to know. A new court decision called In the Matter of Estate of John Travers Jr. Travers App Div tackles the thorny problem of who is entitled to make those decisions for a person who died without a Will and without any written designation.
John Travers, Jr., died without any written instructions concerning his remains. He had no Will. He was single and had no children. His parents survived him, but they were divorced They disagreed over what should happen — the father believed that his son should be buried, but the mother believed that his remains should be cremated. . The court noted that under the statute, the priority would be given to (1) spouse if any; (2) majority of the adult children if any, and then (3) the surviving parents. However, the statute said nothing about what to do when there is a dispute between the parents, who are the equally-situated next-of-kin.
The Appellate Division decided that the Legislature would want the decision to be as much in accordance with the individual’s preferences as a court could discern . Here, he had failed to make his wishes known, but there was evidence that he had a closer relationship with his father at the time of his death. The Court decided that the father was therefore in a better position to determine what his son’s wishes would be. Another factor that impressed the Court was that the father was likely to be appointed administrator of the estate and would also likely pay for all disposition arrangements himself since his son had few assets.
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