Dorothy Parker, an American poet and political activist, died in 1967, leaving her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., a man she admired but had never met. When King was assassinated less than a year later, Parker’s Will bequeathed her estate to the NAACP.
Parker’s Will named Lillian Hellman as her Executrix. Hellman contested the Will and attempted to have the estate distributed to herself, eventually losing to the NAACP.
Also, Hellman never picked up Parker’s ashes from the mortuary.
Eventually, the mortuary mailed the ashes to Hellman’s lawyer, Paul O’Dwyer.
And they sat in his filing cabinet for 15 years.
According to this NPR story, after fifteen years, O’Dwyer held a meeting about the ashes, and ultimately the NAACP claimed them and made a memorial garden for Parker at its Baltimore headquarters.
Because I am an estate planning attorney (albeit with only files and no famous ashes in my cabinet), I was shocked by this story, and it made me wonder about its lessons.
First, I think it speaks to the serious consideration required in choosing an Executor (we call them Personal Representatives here in Hawaii) or Trustee. The job is to follow the directives in the estate plan, not fight to have it distributed to oneself.
Second, and rather obviously, we want to name someone who will not leave us at the mortuary.
Hawaii has a new-ish law, passed in 2013, that addresses this issue.
The Disposition of Remains Act permits people to direct the disposition of their remains in their estate plan, in a contract with a mortuary, or in a notarized writing.
This was an important development, because prior to this law, in order to perform a cremation, funeral homes required the consent of all the deceased person’s children. If the children did not give unanimous consent, the cremation was not performed.
So if you don’t want to end up in a cabinet, best to make your wishes legal.