What We Can Learn From Julia Law’s Case: Estate Plans Avoid Legal Disputes Involving Who May Make Decisions About the Disposition of Your Remains After Your Death

Julia Law.  Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Julia Law. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

The high profile case involving the death of Julia Papazian Law sets a prime example of how having an estate plan can avoid serious conflicts and disputes over the disposition of remains in the event of death.

In this case, Julia Law was pronounced dead on May 25, 2013 and thereafter, an autopsy was performed by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s office.  After an autopsy was performed, the question arose as to who the Philadelphia Medical Examiner should release the decedent’s remains to for burial.

A review of the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court docket indicates that Julia Papazian Law died a resident of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, without a Will, unmarried and with no descendants, and therefore, under Pennsylvania’s laws of intestacy, her biological mother and father are the next of kin who, by law, have authority in all matters pertaining to the disposition of her remains. Based on information reviewed from news sources, a dispute arose between Julia Law’s mother and father as to who should get custody of her remains.

On June 7, 2013, the decedent’s biological mother filed an Emergency Petition for Disposition of Remains of the Decedent with the Philadelphia County Orphans’ Court.  A citation was thereafter issued and directed to Julia Law’s biological father, to show cause why the Court should not order that the remains of Julia Law be released by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner to the decedent’s mother.

The press also reported that Julia Law’s father and his attorney were not present at the emergency hearing held on June 10, 2013.  However, Julia Law’s mother presented testimony stating that she and Julia Law’s father divorced in 1998 and that the latter had not seen Julia Law since she was in high school.  Julia Law’s mother also offered testimony that she had supported the decedent through 9 years of multiple hospitalizations, counseling, and therapy.  At the end of the hearing, Judge Herron ordered that the remains of Julia Law shall be released by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner for disposition according to the wishes of the decedent and the intention of her mother.

If Julia Law had a Last Will and Testament, her wishes and specific desires concerning the disposal of her remains could have been stated in the document, and in such case the aforementioned court proceeding would have been avoided.  However, absent a Will, the Court had to turn to Section 305 of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Probate, Estate and Fiduciary Code which states as follows:

§ 305.  Right to dispose of a decedent’s remains.

(a)  General rule.–The determination of the final disposition of a decedent’s remains shall be as set forth in this section unless otherwise specifically provided by waiver and agreement of the person entitled to make such determination under this section, subject to the provisions of a valid will executed by the decedent and section 8611(a) (relating to persons who may execute anatomical gift).

(b)  Disposition of the remains of a deceased spouse.–Absent an allegation of enduring estrangement, incompetence, contrary intent or waiver and agreement which is proven by clear and convincing evidence, a surviving spouse shall have the sole authority in all matters pertaining to the disposition of the remains of the decedent.

(c)  Disposition of the remains of others.–If there is not a surviving spouse, absent an allegation of enduring estrangement, incompetence, contrary intent or waiver and agreement which is proven by clear and convincing evidence, the next of kin shall have sole authority in all matters pertaining to the disposition of the remains of the decedent.

(d)  Procedure.–Where a petition alleging enduring estrangement, incompetence, contrary intent or waiver and agreement is made within 48 hours of the death or discovery of the body of the decedent, whichever is later, a court may order that no final disposition of the decedent’s remains take place until a final determination is made on the petition. Notice to each person with equal or higher precedence than the petitioner to the right to dispose of the decedent’s remains and to his attorney if known and to the funeral home or other institution where the body is being held must be provided concurrently with the filing of the petition. A suitable bond may be required by the court.

(1)  If the court determines that clear and convincing evidence establishes enduring estrangement, incompetence, contrary intent or waiver and agreement, the court shall enter an appropriate order regarding the final disposition which may include appointing an attorney in fact to arrange the final disposition, with reasonable costs chargeable to the estate.

(2)  If two or more persons with equal standing as next of kin disagree on disposition of the decedent’s remains, the authority to dispose shall be determined by the court, with preference given to the person who had the closest relationship with the deceased.

(3)  If the court determines that the petition is not supported by a clear and convincing evidence, the court may award attorney fees. An award of attorney fees shall constitute a setoff against any claim by the petitioner against the estate.

Thus, it appears that although Julia Law’s biological mother and father were two persons who had equal standing as next of kin, the Court determined that Julia Law’s mother be given authority to obtain the remains for burial.  The Judge deemed that she was the person who had the closest relationship to the decedent in comparison to the father who had been estranged for years.

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