Thursday I attended a Kansas City Estate Planning Society meeting. The luncheon speaker presented fascinating and thought provoking perspectives on fiduciary litigation. She highlighted the recent Collins decision, which dealt with selecting funeral plans under a Missouri medical durable power of attorney. Look for more posts soon discussing other fiduciary litigation cases in Missouri (and Kansas).
Collins focused on the right of sepulcher, choosing your funeral plans under a medical durable power of attorney. The facts: Betty Jean Collins was diagnosed with cancer, and on June 12, 2012, executed a medical durable power of attorney (with springing powers). (Springing powers only go into effect when your doctor certifies you as disabled or incapacitated. Immediate powers, by contrast, are effective the moment you sign the document.) Importantly, Mrs. Collins did not consult an attorney – she filled out a blank medical durable power of attorney form herself. Four days later, Mrs. Collins was killed instantly in a tragic car accident. Believing Mrs. Collins wanted to be cremated after she passed away, Mrs. Collins’ grand niece, Tina Shoemaker, wanted to have Mrs. Collins’ body cremated and give the remains to Mrs. Collins’ daughters. Mrs. Collins’ medical durable power of attorney had appointed Shoemaker to make this decision. But Mrs. Collins’ daughters went to court in Benton County, Missouri and argued Shoemaker didn’t possess authority to make the decision because Mrs. Collins was never found incapacitated, so the powers hadn’t sprung into effect, but lay dormant for all of time in the deceased’s document. Mrs. Collins died, but she wasn’t certified as disabled or incapacitated, so the Collins daughters argued her power of attorney document was a worthless scrap of paper. One month later, the Benton County Probate Court sided with Shoemaker and said she had authority to have Mrs. Collins’ body cremated and give the remains to Mrs. Collins’ daughters. But the daughters appealed to the Missouri appellate court in Kansas City. And about 1 year later, the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the Probate Court and sent shockwaves through the Missouri probate and elder law bar. The Collins Court strictly interpreted Mrs. Collins’ document and noted that while she could have chosen immediate powers, she chose springing powers instead, so since she was never certified as disabled or incapacitated, Shoemaker never had authority to act for Mrs. Collins.
The Missouri Court of Appeals decided Collins on August 6, 2013 per Judge Ellis. In Missouri, the right of sepulcher is “the right to choose and control the burial, cremation, or other final disposition of a dead human body.” Missouri law gives the final decision to the deceased person’s next of kin. And Missouri law defines “next of kin” by degrees of consanguinity (blood relation), similar to intestacy law (dying without a Will). Collins sparked a flurry of debate among the bar. If you’re dead, are you incapacitated? “No,” the Court said. This past week, the Missouri bar released these sample durable power of attorney documents (here for the complete DPOA packet or here, the fillable DPOA), and all Missouri attorneys should ensure their clients’ documents comply with the new provisions. Because of the complexity of these legal issues, Missouri residents should consult with their estate planning attorney to ensure their medical durable powers of attorney reflect their wishes and intent about the right of sepulcher. And if you live in Missouri and do not have estate planning documents in place, do yourself and your family a favor and execute documents at your earliest convenience. Use your freedom to make your own decisions. Don’t leave your estate planning to politicians in Jefferson City.
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(c) 2014, Stephen M. Johnson, Esq.