By Jason Wheeler
contributing writer 

Dispositional rights

Ask the Director


May 11, 2024

It goes without saying that planning for a funeral is difficult. There are many decisions that must be made, many institutions that need to be contacted outside of the funeral home, and many complexities in who makes this decision due to how California disposition law works.

So, what is disposition? Well, the dictionary definition is “the way in which something is placed or arranged, especially in relation to other things.” In the case of a loved one, this is the care taken from the time a loved one is picked up by a funeral home to the time the loved one is placed in their final rest. When the time comes, it can be complicated in determining who has rights to arrange and execute the disposition. It can be complex and, to be honest, downright frustrating at times.

California law describes those who hold disposition rights in a semi-inheritance structure. Outside of any legal documentation, the spouse of the decedent holds dispositional rights (divorce nullifies any rights). The next in line would be a majority of the adult children of the decedent, followed by a majority of the adult grandchildren. If there are no adult children or grandchildren, the parents of the decedent would be next in line, followed by the adult siblings of the decedent. Then it moves on to a competent adult in the next degree of kinship.

Adding to this complication, and a point which many do not often take into consideration, is the fact that all kinship can be legally circumvented within a health care directive which allows for disposition after passing. Sometimes these are created as an independent document, or they can be found within the larger legal documentation of a power of attorney or a family trust. These documents, from the perspective of a funeral home, only have to show the signature of the decedent and party willing to take the responsibility, along with either a notary stamp and signature, or the signatures and contact information of two witnesses.

More than once, I have come across family members who did not know these documents existed for their loved ones until after passing. Sometimes, this is a caregiver who has no family ties. This, unfortunately, creates problems that do not hold any bearing on the funeral homes requirement to move forward with disposition of the loved one. If all the documents are legal, we have a legal obligation to fulfill the right holders wishes.

As a final point, I recommend that all documentation over the care of your elderly loved one be scrutinized. Be an active participant in their care, especially when you hire non-family members to assist with the care. Unfortunately, we live in a world of unscrupulous people who will take advantage of the elderly. Always be aware of what is going on in lives of your older family members.

Jason Wheeler is the Managing Funeral Director (FDR4671) with Wood Family Funeral Service.


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