How to Dispose of a Dead Body in Iowa

Cemetery of Chettle parish church (Johan Doe) / CC BY-SA 3.0

The Iowa Supreme Court issued an interesting ruling today on the disposition of one's bodily remains.  Short summary: Wife dies.  Husband and wife were "on a long break" after 43 years of marriage, but had never formally divorced or filed for a legal separation.  Wife had given instructions in her Last Will as to where she wanted to be buried, verbally told her family members (10 kids!!) and wrote a letter to her son, that was shared with her sister, the executor and the kids about her final wishes.  Husband didn't want wife to be buried in Montana, as she desired and expressed to everyone, so he went ahead and buried her here in Heaven a/k/a Iowa.  Royal rumble in the courts ensued.

Think you have the right to determine what happens to your body after you have "departed planet Earth"?  Unless you take your body with you, guess again.  In the Court's ruling, you have no rights whatsoever as to what happens to your bodily remains.  Iowa Code § 144C.5 which was amended a few years ago, is titled "Final Disposition of Remains - Right to Control" sets out the chain of authority over the individuals that can make that decision.  The deceased person is not on the list.

Thus you, as the dead person, have the right to determine who makes the decision but not actually the decision yourself.  (I.e., buried, cremated, shot into space, sprinkled around the farm, etc.).  Also, don't put those instructions in your will.  I never recommend that in the first place as your will may not surface until it is too late, plus the Court clearly stated that placement in the will isn't compliant with the Iowa Code.  (Justice Cady, whom I believe is one of the premier judicial minds in our courts, issued a strong and rationale dissent that is worth the read.)  And if you don't designate anyone, the Code provides that your spouse is the sole decision-maker (just like in my house), followed by your adult children, and so forth.

I often get a chuckle from clients when I bring up this topic in the estate planning meeting, but this ruling reinforces the value of making plans to cover all of your matters: financial, family and remains.  Moral of the story: Pick the person that you trust to make decisions about your remains, and follow the requirements with including that choice with your durable power of attorney document.


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