June 24, 2005


New York State gives surviving partners end of life decision making powers

The New York state legislature today passed a landmark bill allowing state residents to designate a person to carry out their wishes after they die that includes the domestic partners. The "death care proxy" approved by lawmakers is a simple form, similar to a health care proxy, that authorizes a person to make funeral, burial, and other arrangements. But the most sweeping section of the bill is the one that states that when a person dies without a written death care proxy, decisions automatically revert to relatives, beginning with the person's spouse or domestic partner.

The bill is awaiting the signature of Governor George Pataki before it becomes law.

The website of the New York State Assembly gives the following justification for the bill:

Having  the  ability   to   create   a   comprehensive 
end-of-life plan  is  a  fundamental  right  every  New Yorker should        
possess. This bill fills a gaping  hole  in  that  intensely  personal        
matter, as New York is one of only eleven states that does not provide        
a  mechanism  to  dispose  of  one`s  remains.  The  bill  upholds the        
fundamental right  of  ensuring  that  one`s  end-of-life  wishes  are        
followed.  The  right  to delegate or entrust the disposition of one`s        
remains to another is as  significant  as  the  right  of  disposition        
Under current law, a will allows an individual to specify their wishes        
concerning  disposition  of  property after death; a health care proxy        
allows  an  individual  to  specify  someone  who  will  make  medical        
decisions  in  the event they become incapacitated; and a proxy can be        
used to instruct that an individual`s body be donated to science.  But        
there  is  no  formal  mechanism in New York to allow an individual to        
designate who will have the legal right and responsibility to  control        
and carry out their burial wishes.                                            
This  has  resulted in disputes over who has the right to dispose of a        
loved one`s remains, although court rulings have clearly  stated  that        
an  individual  has  the right to direct the disposition of his or her        
remains after death. This conflict has  led  to  more  confusion  with        
funeral homes, crematories, and cemeteries.                                   
The  bill  creates  a  written  instrument  that allows an individual,        
before they die, to name a person or people who would  carry  out  the        
decedent`s expressed written wishes regarding the disposition of their        
remains.  The  bill  also  creates a rank-order list of people who can        
make those burial decisions absent a written directive, beginning with        
a person who has been named as  a  designated  agent  in  the  written        
instrument. Next in line are the deceased person`s surviving spouse or        
domestic  partner,  then  surviving children 18 years of age or older,        
then surviving parents, then surviving  siblings.  As  important,  the        
proxy  itself  is  inexpensive and simple, making it accessible to the        
poor and user friendly for everyone, including our seniors.                   
The tragic events of 9-11 painfully revealed how vital  and  necessary        
it  is  for  New  York  to have such a formal mechanism that this bill        
establishes  to  ensure  that  one  has  the  ability  to   create   a        
comprehensive  end-of-life  plan. Not only is there currently no proxy        
form  to  specify  how  to dispose of one`s remains and no established        
rank-order list of who should have the legal right to dispose of one`s        
remains.  There  is  also  currently  no  way  to  recognize  domestic        
This  bill defines and includes domestic partnership in the rank-order        
list.  After  9-11,  surviving  domestic  partners   faced   difficult        
challenges  when  they  tried  to  claim  rights to a lost loved one`s        
remains. They were often left powerless, even after  spending  decades        
with their domestic partner, having to allow parents or siblings, whom        
were sometimes estranged from their partner, to control the decedent`s        
remains.  Lacking the authority to carry out a loved one`s end-of-life        
plan is not only dishonorable but it is undignified.                          
This bill recognizes the dignity of loving, committed relationships by        
including domestic partnerships in the rank-order list. The definition        
sufficiently provides for varying circumstances under which a lifelong        
partner  would  qualify  as  a  domestic  partner.   They   meet   the        
requirements  of  the  definition  if  they are registered as domestic        
partners in New York  City  or  covered  under  one  of  the  person`s        
employment benefits or health insurance. If they do not meet either of        
these,   they  would  provide  documentation  specified  in  the  bill        
establishing dependence  or  mutually  interdependence  on  the  other        
person  for  support,  indicating  a  mutual  intent  to  be  domestic        
partners. The definition is taken from New York  State  Department  of        
Civil   Service.   The  inclusion  of  this  definition  prevents  the        
usurpation of the intended wishes of a loved one  to  dispose  of  the        
remains,  upholding  a  fundamental  right that all New Yorkers should        
possess. Any other determination that  would  be  made  against  those        
wishes is tantamount to desecrating those remains.