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Bruning v. Eckman Funeral Home

May 7, 1997

RUTH BRUNING, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ECKMAN FUNERAL HOME, DEFENDANT, AND DENISE HELSTOWSKI, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Middlesex County.

Approved for Publication May 7, 1997. As Corrected May 13, 1997.

Before Judges Baime, P.g. Levy and Braithwaite. The opinion of the court was delivered by Braithwaite, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Braithwaite

The opinion of the court was delivered by

BRAITHWAITE, J.A.D.

Defendant Denise Helstowski appeals from an order entered pursuant to N.J.S.A. 8A:5-18, granting plaintiff Ruth Bruning "the right to control the Disposition of the remains" of her deceased husband. Ibid. On appeal, Helstowski contends that the directive signed by the decedent three years prior to his death constituted "other directions" under N.J.S.A. 8A:5-18 and therefore should have controlled the Disposition of his remains. The trial Judge ruled that "what the legislature obviously did mean by 'other directions' is the directions that appear typically in wills . . . about one's burial," and therefore, the written directive by the decedent did not control the Disposition of his remains. We disagree and now reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

Plaintiff married decedent John Peter Bruning on March 26, 1939. At an unspecified point, plaintiff and decedent stopped residing together but never legally divorced. In January 1972, decedent purchased four burial plots in St. James Cemetery in Jamesburg for his family.

For at least six years before his death, decedent lived with Helstowski in Monroe. Helstowski stated that she had lived with decedent for twenty-three years. During the time that Helstowski and decedent lived together, she took care of him when he was ill and tended to his personal business affairs.

In July 1990, decedent executed a power of attorney granting Helstowski the power to execute documents and make any medical and business decisions on his behalf. Helstowski handled all of these matters for decedent. In that capacity, Helstowski deposited money in plaintiff's bank account and paid her real estate taxes, water and sewer bills, and house and car repairs.

In February 1993, decedent purchased a mausoleum in Marlboro and expressed his wish to be interred there when he died. The same month, decedent signed a directive stating that the deed to his burial plots in St. James Cemetery should be turned over to his granddaughter, Wendy Keppe. The directive further states that "my final burial will be with my beloved Denise Helstowski at Rolling Hills Gardens of Marlboro." Debra Sobol witnessed decedent's signature on the document.

Decedent died on January 29, 1996. After Helstowski made funeral arrangements for decedent, plaintiff filed a complaint seeking to enjoin Helstowski and defendant Eckman Funeral Home from making any of the arrangements. Following a hearing, the trial Judge ruled that plaintiff had the right to control the Disposition of decedent's remains. This appeal followed.

II.

The statute in question, N.J.S.A. 8A:5-18, provides, in pertinent ...


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