In Old Bridge Funeral Home v. Pruckowski , the Mrs. Pruckowski died leaving a Last Will and Testament. Her Will expressly omitted any provision for her three children. Other than a car, which she left to her nephew, Mrs. Pruckowski bequeathed her estate to charity. She appointed her brother as Executor of her modest estate. She directed that her “just debts and funeral expenses” were to be paid from the estate.

Although the Executor had received a price quote of $13,000 for a funeral in Union, Mrs. Pruckowski’s children wanted the funeral to be held closer to Mrs. Pruckowski’s family and friends in Old Bridge. Mrs. Pruckowski’s son claimed that the Executor told him to plan the funeral, without giving him any financial restrictions. The son booked the funeral at Old Bridge Funeral Home for $30,000.

On the day of the funeral, the funeral home had only been paid a small deposit, and it insisted that the children each sign a “Contract/Promissory Note” agreeing to pay the balance. The contract stated that the payment was a personal obligation, “in addition to the liability imposed by law upon the estate and others.”

When that balance remained unpaid, the funeral home sued the children, the Executor (personally and as executor of the estate), and the Estate. The parties cross-filed for summary judgment.

While those motions were pending, Mrs. Pruckowski’s son filed a motion seeking to file a cross-claim for indemnification against the Estate and Executor, claiming that they had a duty under the Will to pay for the funeral.

The trial judge granted the funeral home’s summary judgment motion against the children, granted the Estate/Executor’s summary judgment motion against the children, and denied the son’s summary judgment motion. The judge found that the Executor, as the decedent’s brother, was authorized under New Jersey statute to direct the funeral. The trial court found that the children’s omission from the Will extinguished their statutory right to control the funeral. The judge also denied the son’s motion to assert a cross-claim, finding that such a cross-claim would be “futile” given the judge’s rulings.

The son appealed the denial of his motion to amend his pleadings to assert a cross-claim.

On appeal, the Appellate Division concluded that the trial judge had erred in denying that motion and in concluding that the children had no statutory right to control the funeral. It found that the judge was mistaken in concluding that the children could not control the funeral because they had been omitted from the Will.

According to N.J.S.A. 45:27-22(a), if the decedent appoints a person to control the funeral and disposition of the remains, that person is entitled to make the arrangements. If no such person is appointed, the statute establishes a hierarchy of persons to control the remains (unless a court has directed otherwise):

  1. the surviving spouse/domestic partner;
  2. a majority of the surviving adult children;
  3. the surviving parent(s);
  4. a majority the surviving siblings;
  5. other next of kin, based upon degree of relationship; and
  6. “any other person” acting on the decedent’s behalf.

The appellate court concluded that, because the Will did not appoint a funeral agent, and made no mention of whether the children were barred from participating in the funeral, the statutory hierarchy applied: the surviving children had a higher priority to control the funeral than the decedent’s brother (who in this case was the Executor). The court concluded that the lower court had erred in assuming that, because the children were not provided for under the Will, they had no right to priority under the statute. Consequently, the son should have been permitted to file a cross-claim seeking indemnification from the Executor/Estate for the funeral expenses.

Nevertheless, where someone other than the Executor makes funeral arrangements at the expense of the Estate, the expenses must be reasonable. Because the trial court had not addressed that issue, the Appellate Division remanded the case on the sole issue of the reasonableness of those expenses.

A copy of Old Bridge Funeral Home v. Pruckowski can be found here – Old Bridge Funeral Home v. Pruckowski