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Adam S. Bernick, Esq. on 12/18/2012

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Sherman Alexander Hemsley, a native of Philadelphia, better known for his role as George Jefferson in “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons”, and later as Deacon Ernest Frye on “Amen”, died in Texas on July 24, 2012, yet remained unburied in a freezer until November 21, 2012, due to a will contest in the El Paso, Texas probate court. Although the court there recently upheld the will and authorized the executrix to make burial arrangements, the court’s order may be appealed, leaving Mr. Hemsley, while now interred and hopefully “moving on up”, potentially in limbo. What law applies to burial in similar situations in Pennsylvania?

As a general rule, the Courts of the Commonwealth have long recognized that "the duty to determine when, where and in what manner the body shall be buried rests with the executor or administrator. Pettigrew v. Pettigrew, 207 Pa. 313 (1904). But, this presumes that the Register accepted a will for probate, and that no one challenged the will, so that the Register granted letters testamentary to a personal representative of testator’s estate, which actually has instructions as to the disposition of testator’s remains. Absent such clear instruction, deciding on the disposition of testator’s remains generally does not fall to the personal representative of the estate. See, Hodge v. Cameron, 132 Pa. Super 1 (1938). A person cannot become the executor until the will is filed with the Register of Wills, it is accepted, and letters testamentary issue under seal of the Register confirming the appointment of the individual as executor of the estate.

Problematically, most Registers of Wills in Pennsylvania will not issue letters testamentary prior to disposition of the remains of the decedent and issuance of the death certificate. Nothing in the Probate, Estate and Fiduciary Code (Title 20, “PEF”) specifically states that a death certificate must be produced to the Register in order for the Register to accept into probate testator’s will. Among the prerequisites that the proponent of the will must produce to the Register is “a death certificate (or other appropriate proof of death).” Register of Wills of Philadelphia County Manual, Chapter 2 of Blue Book. The Register may issue the letters testamentary on affidavit that someone died, provided that the death certificate is actually filed within a set period of time, subject to revocation of the letters testamentary if not timely filed. The foregoing is uncommon and presumably the affidavit would require counsel executing the affidavit to state something regarding the disposition of decedent. Consequently, the Courts of this Commonwealth have long recognized that under Pennsylvania’s probate system you cannot determine who is the executor or administrator and can act under the will until the party has duly qualified and has received his commission from the Register of Wills. Potentially the executor could not qualify. Hodge, supra.

The Orphans’ Court Division has mandatory jurisdiction over the control of the decedent's burial. 20 Pa. C.S. § 711(1). However, the Courts have not relied on this section of the statute on its own. See, In re Fontana, 72 Pa. D.&C.2d 287 (Allegheny County, Orphans' Court Division, 1975) (holding that the Orphans’ Court Division lacks subject matter jurisdiction to consider a dispute between brothers regarding the use of crypts in a mausoleum). Likewise, jurisdiction presumably includes disposition of the body via other means such as cremation, other than the granting of anatomical gifts of the body or parts of it which are governed by separate sections of the PEF.

The Courts have long held that a testator’s wishes regarding the disposal of his remains are entitled to respectful consideration, whether or not the decedent’s directions are followed. Pettigrew v.Pettigrew, 207 Pa. 313 (1904).

A review of the case law does not indicate any Superior Court decisions addressing a situation where a decedent provided for disposition of his remains in his will, including which cemetery/plot to use and if cremation was selected or not, which someone challenged in court prior to internment. The common law developed several factors in determining burial disputes, such as the desire of the testator in stipulating a specific burial location or method, requesting that his remains not be disturbed, requesting that no re-internment occur, requesting that burial occur in a specific religious method, etc… See, Florence E. Novelli and Lloyd E. Carroll v. Pamela Kay Carroll and Whitemarsh Memorial Park, 278 Pa.Super. 141 (1980). Indeed, in Novelli, the Court relied in part on Judge Cardozo (then sitting on the New York Court of Appeals) who established not a rule, but a process, to guide a court of equity to act in an equitable manner to protect someone’s grave while allowing for the possibility of the need of survivors to make decisions regarding the deceased. Novelli at 151 citing Judge Cardozo in Yome v. Gorman, 242 N.Y. 395, 403-05, 152 N.E. 126, 129 (1926).

In 1998 the Legislature codified the law on this subject. Thereafter, absent clear language in a will, or provision in a power of attorney granting an agent authority to make an anatomical gift of part or all of a body (20 Pa C.S. § 8611(a)), or waiver and agreement by those individuals entitled to make burial decisions, 20 Pa. C.S. § 305 governs who may direct the disposition of decedent’s remains. If a person died intestate or without a valid will, or valid anatomical grant (see, 20 Pa.C.S. § 305(a)), the surviving spouse has priority in deciding the disposition of the remains of their spouse, absent an allegation of enduring estrangement, incompetence, contrary intent or waiver and agreement which is proven by clear and convincing evidence. 20 Pa.C.S. § 305(b). If decedent did not leave a spouse, the next of kin shall have sole authority in all matters pertaining to the disposition of the remains of the decedent. 20 Pa. C.S. § 305(c).

The statute provides clear guidance on procedural aspects of obtaining a decision from the Orphans’ Court. An interested party desiring to block the disposition of decedent’s remains must file with the Clerk of Orphans’ Court an emergency petition within 48 hours of the death or discovery of the body of the decedent, whichever is later. Upon the filing of such a petition, the Orphans’ Court Division may order that no final disposition of the decedent's remains take place until a final determination is made on the petition. The Court then must hold a hearing to determine that “clear and convincing evidence establishes enduring estrangement, incompetence, contrary intent or waiver and agreement” and only then shall the court “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.” See, 20 Pa. C.S. § 305(d)(1).

However, in those instances when “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.” See, 20 Pa. C.S. § 305(d)(2).

In order to minimize the filing of petitions without merit, the statute specifically authorizes the court to award attorney’s fees if the court makes a determination regarding when the petition is not supported by clear and convincing evidence, which if brought by an heir or beneficiary would be offset against their distribution from the estate. See, 20 Pa. C.S. § 305(d)(3).

The statute specifically authorizes the that court may require the filing of a bond, but the amount is not set. Whether the filing of the bond will be required concurrent to the filing of the petition, or perhaps only prior to the court issuing a decree enjoining the disposition of the remains of decedent is uncertain, and presumably each county can decide their own procedure in this regards.

While the codification would appear to simplify matters, case law on the subject continues to provide guidance in this matter. Indeed, Judge Herron recently provided some guidance on this matter and noted that Section 305 should be construed in light of the prior relevant precedent. See, Estate of Rose Weiss, Phila O.C. No. 1463 DE of 2009 (Judge Herron citing Kulp v. Kulp, 2007 Pa. Super. 70, 920 A.2d 867 (2007). Judge Herron examined the issue in depth and determined that courts should look to objective criteria, particularly when it is clear that each sibling loved and cared for their parent. Among objective criteria utilized was who the decedent chose as their agent for making health care and personal decisions. Judge Herron noted that “although the statutory language of Section 305 became effective in 1998, the recent appellate precedent of Kulp v. Kulp, 2007 Pa. Super. 70, 920 A.2d 867 (2007) emphasizes that the provisions of section 305 should be construed in light of the prior relevant precedent.”

In another court, the judge utilized the “closeness” test and received into evidence the emotional closeness of one interested party and the decedent, in terms of the number of telephone communications, among other factors. See also Estate of N.P., 22 Fid. Rep. 2d 473 (Berks Cty. O.C. 2002).

So, in Pennsylvania, if a relative who is the next of kin learns that decedent died, they can block probate of the will, engage in a will contest and obtain an order delaying the burial of decedent, just like what occurred to Mr. Hemsley. His unfortunate situation illustrates the importance of having detailed funeral, burial and related instructions in a will, power of attorney, trust and related documents, as well as the necessity of coordination between the agent under a power of attorney and proposed executor and other fiduciaries, the providers of medical services, and the funeral home. Relatives concerned about the funeral and burial arrangements of their next of kin need to inquire into the matter, and may have to engage in costly litigation at a time when they will be emotionally disturbed by the death of a loved relative.

Judge Cardozo, more than 90 years after his opinion in Yome, supra, remains correct in his statement that it ultimately rests with the court as a matter of equity to determine disputes about burial arrangements.

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