Governor George Pataki recently signed a bill that gives
domestic partners the right to control the disposition of the
remains when one of the partners dies. The new law places
a domestic partner, just like a spouse, ahead of parents,
children, or other blood relatives in terms of funeral
The measure had strong
bipartisan support, passing the Republican-led Senate by a vote
of 58-0 and the Democratic-led House by a vote of 94-25.
Gov. Pataki is a Republican.
The new law
also had strong public support. Some
83% of New Yorkers favored the bill, with 89% of
Democrats, 81% of Independents and 76% of Republicans in
Under the new statute, top
priority goes to the person designated in a written document
signed by the deceased. A simple, one paragraph statutory
form has been created to make such a written designation easy to
Absent a written directive of
this nature, the next highest priority to control disposition of
remains goes to a surviving spouse or domestic partner.
Next priority is to an adult child, then to a parent, then to
other blood relatives.
This type of legislative
clarity is important not only to unmarried couples, but to all
unmarried Americans. While it has always been assumed that
a surviving spouse will control funeral arrangements, things can
get confusing and emotionally charged when a single person dies,
and a real tug-of-war can erupt when estranged relatives try to
step ahead of a surviving partner.
I recall only too vividly what
happened several years ago when my friend Claudio called me
after his domestic partner died. Bob and Claudio had been
living together in New Jersey for about eight years.
Before Bob passed away he
signed a will and executed a durable power of attorney for
health care. Both documents stated that Claudio would have
authority to control the disposition of Bob's remains.
Claudio was also to inherit the house which Bob owned.
Then came the moment of truth.
Claudio called me in a state of
panic. As soon as Bob died, his parents and 12 siblings
started acting as if Claudio was a perfect stranger to Bob.
They wanted Claudio out of the house immediately and wanted to
give him no say about funeral arrangements.
I flew to New Jersey the next
day and went with Claudio to the mortuary. We presented
the will and the power of attorney to the funeral director as
proof that Claudio should control decisions regarding the
obituary notice, funeral service, and burial. After all,
that's what Bob had put in writing.
It was as if these legal
documents were garbage. They meant nothing to the
mortuary. Blood ruled. Domestic partners were
Excuses were made as to why
both documents were not controlling. "The will cannot be
filed for probate for 13 days after death in New Jersey, and
until that time it means nothing," we were told. "The
power of attorney was signed in a hospital in New York and so we
do not have to recognize it here in New Jersey," the funeral
So the content of the paid
obituary notice was up to Bob's parents. Not surprising,
that notice did not mention Claudio.
Claudio went to the viewing and
to the funeral service, even though he was told by Bob's
relatives that he was not wanted. But the family's
negative behavior was so strong that Claudio decided not to go
to the gravesite.
New Jersey now has a statewide
domestic partnership law which was enacted about a year ago.
Registered partners have the right to control disposition of
remains should one of them die, even if blood relatives object.
Claudio and Bob did all they
could at the time, but there were no laws back then specifically
giving priority to a domestic partner to control disposition of
Each state sets its own rules
when it comes to mortuary services and funerals.
A surviving spouse always has top
priority to make decisions, which pretty much ends the matter
when a married person dies. But for unmarried
Americans, the legal waters are muddy.
New Yorkers now have clarity, but
what about some relief for the rest of Unmarried America?
The "control of remains" statute
in New York is a model which should be replicated throughout the
nation. Single people in general, and domestic partners in
particular, would benefit immensely if sympathetic legislators
in other states would secure passage of similar bills in their
Unmarried America 2006
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
email@example.com. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and