Case Summary: Absent Credible Direction from Decedent, Appellate Division Looks to Totality of the Circumstances in Deciding Final Resting Place

Crane v. Crane, Docket No. A-3174-20 (N.J. Super. App. Div. Dec. 29, 2022)

This case involved the determination of a decedent’s intentions with respect to her burial location and the disposition of her remains.  The Appellate Division affirmed the earlier decision of the trial court following a trial that featured testimony from nine witnesses.

Decedent Joyce Crane was the mother of Jacqueline and Michael.  Jacqueline resided in New Jersey, while Michael was domiciled in Israel.

Prior to Joyce’s death, Jacqueline filed an action in New Jersey seeking to enjoin her brother from removing their mother or her remains from New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center (“NYP”), where she was a patient.

Shortly before Joyce’s death, Jacqueline sought a TRO.  As part of these proceedings, the court enjoined Michael from removing Joyce or her remains from NYP.  The court also ordered Joyce to be interred at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Queens, New York (“Mt. Carmel”), pending an adjudication as to Joyce’s wishes as to her final burial location.

At trial, Jacqueline testified that in the 1970s, Joyce’s father purchased a burial plot at Mt. Carmel, consisting of eight to 10 burial places for members of the family.  According to Jacqueline, Joyce’s parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other family members of Joyce are buried at Mt. Carmel.  Although Joyce’s burial wishes were not a frequent topic of discussion, Joyce would state to Jacqueline whenever they would visit their deceased relatives that Mt. Carmel was to be “her resting place.”  Joyce also told her daughter that she wanted a specific song played at her funeral.  Jacqueline further testified that she never agreed with Michael that Joyce should be buried in Israel and never discussed Joyce’s funeral plans with Michael.  Joyce never expressed to Jacqueline a desire to live in Israel.

Michael testified that in 2003, he and Joyce executed reciprocal powers of attorney in which each designated the other as agent.  Michael stated that Joyce wanted to execute the 2003 POA because she and Michael were travelling more frequently, and it would be simpler if they had reciprocal powers of attorney to conduct business on the other’s behalf.  Specifically, section 2(f) of the 2003 POA authorized Michael to “make advance arrangements for [Joyce’s] funeral and burial, including the purchase of a burial plot and marker, and such other related arrangements as [Michael] shall deem appropriate.”  Michael testified that he reviewed this provision with Joyce before she signed it.

Michael further testified that in October 2003, the day after executing the 2003 POA, Joyce signed a document entitled “Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains” (“the Designation”), which appointed Michael as agent to control the disposition of Joyce’s remains upon her death and advising that her remains were not to be cremated in accordance with Jewish law.  Michael drafted the Designation based on a form given to him by a friend who was a New York attorney.  Joyce signed the Designation at Michael’s office, and the witnesses who signed were acquaintances of Michael who worked in his office building.  However, Michael did not have the original of the Designation.

Michael also testified that on several occasions, Joyce expressed a desire to live with Michael in Israel and that she wanted to be buried near Michael in Israel.  He further testified that Joyce was not assigned a specific grave in the family burial plot in Mt. Carmel and that there are no documents which state that Joyce intended to be buried in one of the plots in Mt. Carmel.  He stated that Joyce never expressed a desire to be buried with her family at Mt. Carmel.

In post-trial briefs, Michael argued that the 2003 POA and the Designation evidence that Joyce wanted Michael to control Joyce’s funeral arrangements and the disposition of her remains.  On the other hand, Jacqueline questioned the authenticity of the Designation and cited that the 2003 POA does not deal in any manner with Joyce’s burial location or wishes.

The trial court analyzed the application of the Cemetery Act, specifically N.J.S.A. § 45:27-22.  The court also took into consideration New York Public Health Law § 4201, an updated version of which became law in 2006, which governs the disposition of a decedent’s remains.  The court found that the New Jersey Cemetery Act governs this dispute, not the New York statute.  However, the court noted that there is “no doubt” that the Designation relied upon by Michael is based on the updated New York statute.  This fact was significant because the Designation relied upon by Michael at trial to assert that he controls the disposition and burial of Joyce’s remains was purportedly executed in October 2003.  However, the updated § 4201, including the proposed format of the Designation, was not enacted into law until 2006.  As a result, the court found the genuineness of the Designation to be “in serious question.”

The trial court concluded that the Designation could not have been prepared in October 2003 as asserted by Michael, and was therefore a manufactured document intended to defraud the court.  Accordingly, the trial judge rejected all of Michael’s trial testimony regarding Joyce’s intentions as to her burial location and disposition of her remains.

The trial court also found that the 2003 POA, by itself, was insufficient to demonstrate that Joyce intended to appoint Michael to be her agent for the disposition of her remains or to bury her in Israel.

Since the court concluded that neither the Designation nor the 2003 POA provided sufficient evidence to determine Joyce’s probable intent as to the disposition of her remains or her burial wishes, the next step was to reconcile the competing positions of Jacqueline and Michael who had equal statutory standing as siblings under the Cemetery Act to determine Joyce’s burial wishes.

The trial court considered evidence of any communications, written or otherwise, between the decedent and others that expressed the decedent’s wishes, desires, and expectations for funeral arrangements or disposition of remains.  In its analysis of a decedent’s probable intent, the court should consider certain factors, namely (1) the decedent’s wishes and who would abide by same, (2) the nature of the relationship between the petitioners and the decedent, (3) the decedent’s religious beliefs and/or cultural practices, and (4) the best interests of the estate.  See re Estate of Travers, 457 N.J. Super. 477, 484-85 (Ch. Div. 2017).

After a thorough review of these factors, the trial judge concluded that that Joyce did not express an intent to be buried in Israel, and the facts and circumstances indicated that Joyce wished to be buried with her family at Mt. Carmel.  The court also concluded that Jacqueline would abide by Joyce’s wishes regarding the burial location of her remains.

Michael appealed the trial judge’s order that Joyce’s remains continue to be interred at Mt. Carmel.

The Appellate Division found that the trial judge’s findings were substantially supported by his credibility determinations.  Defendant could not explain who gave him the Designation form, why it was not included in the POA executed the day before, why he had not disclosed the document prior to trial, or where the original was.  Further, the Designation at issue (dated October 10, 2003) closely tracked the language of NYPHL § 4201, which was not introduced as a bill for nearly another two years and not enacted as law until three years later in 2006.  Therefore, § 4201 did not exist at the time the Designation was prepared and purportedly executed.

In addition, the Appellate Division found nothing in the evidence that supported Michael’s contention that Joyce wanted to be buried in Israel.

The Appellate Division found no error in the judge’s application of the doctrine of probable intent, and affirmed that Joyce was more likely to abide by Joyce’s wishes.