Arthur v. Milstein, — So.2d —-, 2007 WL 602630 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007)

Poor Judge Seidlin.  Even when he gets it right . . . he’s wrong.  Relying on the “tipsy coachman” doctrine, which allows allows an appellate court to affirm a trial court that “reaches the right result, but for the wrong reasons” so long as “there is any basis which would support the judgment in the record,” the 4th DCA upheld Judge Seidlin’s ruling granting power to decide where Smith will be buried to Richard C. Milstein, as guardian ad litem for Smith’s 5-month-old daughter, Dannielynn Hope Marshall Stern.

According to the 4th DCA, the trial court incorrectly based its ruling on Florida statutes intended to guide funeral home operators and medical examiners:

The trial court relied upon section 406.50(4) to determine that Dannielynn had priority over Arthur. .  .  .  .  We find that neither section 497.005(37) [superceded by 497.005(39)], nor section 406.50, control the outcome of this case, which in essence involves private parties engaged in a pre-burial dispute as to the decedent’s remains. Otherwise stated, the trial court was not being asked to consider whether a funeral home or medical examiner was liable for its decision with respect to the disposition of a decedent’s remains.

Instead, as I predicted here, the 4th DCA held that its prior ruling in the Cohen case (which I wrote about here) was the correct basis for deciding this dispute: Anna Nicole Smith’s body should be disposed of in accordance with her intent, as established by clear and convincing evidence. Here’s how the 4th DCA articulated its rationale:

In this case, common law is dispositive. Kirksey v. Jernigan, 45 So.2d 188, 189 (Fla.1950); Cohen v. Guardianship of Cohen, 896 So.2d 950 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005); Leadingham v. Wallace, 691 So.2d 1162 (Fla. 5th DCA 1997). Generally, in the absence of a testamentary disposition, the spouse of the deceased or the next of kin has the right to the possession of the body for burial or other lawful disposition. Kirksey. In Cohen, we held that a written testamentary disposition is not conclusive of the decedent’s intent if it can be shown by clear and convincing evidence that he intended another disposition for his body. Cohen looked to decisions of other states which determined that whether to enforce the will provisions regarding disposition of the testator’s body depends upon the circumstances of the case.

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Cohen noted that there were “no cases in Florida or across the country in which a testamentary disposition has been upheld even though credible evidence has been introduced to show that the testator changed his or her mind as to the disposition of his/her body.” 896 So.2d at 954. There, we found no abuse of discretion associated with the trial court’s finding of the decedent’s intent. See also Leadingham. We note that even under section 497.005[39], the first priority is to the wishes of the decedent “when written inter vivos authorizations and directions are provided” and that the remaining list of legally authorized persons are those who are most likely to know and follow those wishes. To the extent sections 497.005[39] and 406.05(4) provide guidance, the priorities therein could set forth a presumption, rebuttable by clear and convincing evidence of the decedent’s intent, as was the will in Cohen, and as found here.

Probate litigator’s toolkit: 

“Burial disposition” cases are rare. So if you find yourself involved in one, you’ll want to read Judge Seidlin’s trial court order [click here] and the excellent legal analysis of the case prepared by attorney Shane Kelley, which can be found in “Who Can Dispose of Her Body”: Disposition of the Remains of a Decedent under Florida Law.

For an excellent article tackling the need for better burial statutes nationwide, you’ll want to read Uniform Acts-Can the Dead Hand Control the Dead Body? The Case for a Uniform Bodily Remains Law. What I find particularly helpful about this article is that it provides a detailed, well-researched and thoughtful proposed statute from beginning to end. For those of you finding yourself involved in one of these cases, you’ll want to read this article. It highlights issues you’ll have never thought of on your own.