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Should I Include Funeral and Burial Instructions in My Estate Plan?

One area of estate planning that many people overlook is their funeral and burial. It is a good idea to include instructions regarding your wishes to the executor of your will or the successor trustee of your revocable living trust. You might even consider using a funeral planning website or service to assist you. Such advanced planning can help your loved ones save time (and money) after your death and can minimize the potential for costly litigation over such issues.

Partner, Sibling Argue Over Headstone Inscription

A recent California court case illustrates what can happen when a person’s relatives fight over burial issues. The deceased in this case was a man with three siblings. The man had no children and never married, but he was in a 48-year relationship with a woman “whom he considered his wife in all but name.”

The deceased, who was Jewish, was buried at a cemetery in Santa Barbara. His two brothers planned to erect a headstone on his grave on the one-year anniversary of his death, a practice consistent with Jewish religious custom. But the brothers and his surviving partner disagreed over the proposed inscription for the headstone. The trustee of the deceased’s trust attempted to broker a compromise.

The argument continued for another two years, during which time one of the brothers died. At some point, the surviving brother took it upon himself to unilaterally place a headstone containing the inscription “BELOVED BROTHER” and a Masonic symbol. (The three brothers were apparently all Freemasons.) The partner renewed her objection to the inscription, arguing it was an “affront” to her relationship with the deceased and was “contrary” to the deceased’s strained relationship with his siblings.

The trustee offered to replace the inscription but the brother balked. The trustee then sought instructions from a California probate court. Before the judge, the brother said California law gave him the right to determine his brother’s headstone. The partner disagreed, citing the fact she held the deceased’s power of attorney for health care at the time of his death. The court ultimately said the trustee could replace the brother’s inscription with the “neutral” language the trustee initially proposed as a compromise.

The brother appealed, but the California Court of Appeal affirmed the probate judge’s decision. The appeals court noted California law, which governs the “disposition” of human remains, did not really apply here, as this was a disagreement over the wording of a headstone placed more than two years after the deceased’s remains were interred. Under the circumstances, the court said the trustee “appropriately petitioned the probate court for an instruction regarding the headstone’s content.” And the court’s adoption of the trustee’s proposed inscription—that both the partner and the the deceased’s sister (the third sibling) approved—was also reasonable.

Need Help With Estate Planning?

Obviously, this entire dispute might have been avoided had the deceased simply left instructions to his trustee regarding his preferred headstone inscription. Overlooking this seemingly simple detail led the trust to spend additional time and money on a relatively superficial matter. This is why it is important to consider funeral and burial instructions as part of your estate plan. If you need help from an experienced San Diego estate planning attorney on this or any similar matter, contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today.

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