“Are the ashes from the cremation of a 26 week old stillborn fetus marital or separate property?”

A sad question for a court to ask, but the answer is “separate property,” citing a woman’s “full control over the progress and outcome of her pregnancy” (Jackson v. Jackson (N.Y. trial court Dec. 30, 2013)):

[T]he public policy of this State would lead to a conclusion that fetal remains, in whatever form, are separate property. That public policy is found in the statutory and common law of reproductive rights in this State. That law gives to the woman full control over the progress and outcome of her pregnancy without veto power by a husband or putative father. The only restrictions on the woman are the interests of the State that can be imposed within the confines of the Roe v. Wade trimester regime. While a woman could clearly confer a property interest in fetal remains to a husband, unless that was clearly shown to be the case, the ashes of her stillborn birth should be presumed to be her separate property.

But I don’t think this logic holds. That the woman has full legal control over the progress and outcome of her pregnancy — she’s the only one, for instance, who can choose whether or not to abort the fetus — doesn’t tell us much about what happens when the pregnancy is over.

If the pregnancy terminates in a live birth, the father and mother generally have presumptively equal parental rights in the child. If the pregnancy terminates in a stillbirth, it’s perfectly plausible, I think, for the man and woman to generally have presumptively equal rights with respect to the remains. That may include the right to control the burial or cremation of the remains, and the property right in the ashes if a cremation was chosen.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that treating the remains as marital property (or as community property in community property states) is the right answer. But I don’t think that the woman’s control over the pregnancy, which has been justified as stemming from a woman’s control over her own body, by itself dictates the right answer.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy. Before coming to UCLA, he clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court and for Judge Alex Kozinski on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Volokh is the author of the textbooks The First Amendment and Related Statutes (4th ed. 2011), The Religion Clauses and Related Statutes (2005), and Academic Legal Writing (4th ed. 2010), as well as over 70 law review articles. Volokh is also an Academic Affiliate for the Mayer Brown LLP law firm.
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Eugene Volokh | January 24