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Ethical Dilemmas and Legal Protocols: Funeral Planning for a Difficult Family Member

After years of experiencing a terrible relationship with their father, who was an addict and a bigot, an anonymous writer asked the New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist if they were obligated to arrange their father’s funeral. While the Ethicist hinted that there’s an ethical argument to be made for handling their estranged father’s funeral, the writer’s situation raises questions regarding the legal obligations for handling funeral arrangements for family in situations where one may not want the responsibility.

In the writer’s situation, their parents were previously divorced and their sibling predeceased their father. When someone dies in New Jersey without appointing a person to control their funeral and disposition, either through a Will or an appointment of agent form available from the New Jersey Cemetery Board, there is a legal protocol in place.

Controlling a Funeral in New Jersey

Under New Jersey law, the funeral and burial process begins with identifying next of kin in order of priority to decide who should be appointed to control the funeral and disposition. The order is:

  1. The spouse, civil union or domestic partner
  2. A majority of the adult children
  3. The parent(s)
  4. A majority of the siblings
  5. Other next of kin according to the degree of blood relation
  6. If there are no known living relatives, a cemetery may rely on the written authorization of any other person acting on behalf of the deceased

If the highest priority next of kin can’t be found or doesn’t take control of the arrangements within 72 hours of the death, the appointment moves down to the people in the next highest priority class. Likewise, if any kin are unwilling or unable to accept the responsibility, the appointment moves down the list until someone can.

When No One Accepts Responsibility for a Funeral

What happens, then, if no one is appointed, or will accept an appointment, to arrange a funeral? New Jersey law states that county or intercounty medical examiner office personnel will then take charge and make burial arrangements. If the deceased has money in their estate, funds will be taken from it to pay for the burial. Otherwise, the county will look to a spouse and then a parent to cover the costs. If there are none, the county will pay for the burial.

Planning for Funerals and Burial

There are several important steps to take to protect your funeral and disposition wishes, the first one being to appoint an agent to handle your funeral and burial arrangements. You should work with an estate planning attorney to discuss your options and get guidance in appointing a funeral agent.

The writer to the Ethicist was in an unfortunate situation, which is not uncommon, unfortunately. While, ethically, we don’t necessarily have obligations to arrange funerals for blood relatives, the law in New Jersey may dictate to the contrary. If you have any questions, be sure to talk to an estate law attorney.

Funeral, Funeral Planning

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