Planning the final arrangements for a loved one can be chaotic, and it's not uncommon for people to have many questions. Of course, many people are afraid to ask these questions out of fear of upsetting other family members or friends of the deceased. Unfortunately, this can lead to confusion if multiple people move forward with conflicting plans.

One of the more sensitive questions loved ones are often afraid to ask is who can place a headstone on a grave. There is often a lot of misinformation around this topic, and it is not uncommon for multiple family members to insist that they are the only ones with the right to place a headstone on their loved one's grave.

Who Has the Legal Right to Place a Headstone?

The only person with the legal right to place any type of permanent marker on the grave or make any decision regarding the gravesite is the individual who has the Deed of Grant to the cemetery plot. Typically, an individual will obtain this deed in two ways.

Inheriting a Deed

If the deceased has purchased a grave plot (or had a grave plot gifted to them), they must choose who will inherit this deed. Typically, this means that the deceased will state who will inherit the deed in their will. This individual then can make any decision necessary about the gravesite. Remember that the inheritor of the deed can be a different person than the executor of the estate. In fact, they can be a different person than the individual designated to make decisions regarding all other final arrangements. However, for practical reasons, this is not recommended.

If there is no will, the deed is considered an asset of the estate and will be treated as any other asset. This means that ownership of the deed will typically revert to the next of kin. In the United States, that generally means that the deceased's children will own the deed.

Purchasing a Deed

If no arrangement was made to obtain a cemetery plot before a person's death, a plot must be purchased for them. This means that the person who purchases the plot will be the person who owns the deed. It's important to be aware that, in most cases, the person who makes the purchase is the one who owns the deed, even if the money came from multiple people. Anyone who wants to be on the deed typically must be present when the plot is purchased.

One common misperception is that if money from the estate or a life insurance policy is used to make the purchase, the deed is automatically owned or controlled by the executor of the estate. In fact, any funds from the estate must first be dispersed to an heir, who then will decide to purchase a cemetery plot. This process is usually made easier if a will is left specifying who should make this purchase.

What Happens If There Is a Conflict Over a Headstone?

Of course, the fact that there can be confusion around the ownership of a grave means there is the potential for conflict over what should happen with the grave. Typically, these conflicts occur over two main points of contention.

Uncertainty Over Who Controls the Gravesite

Despite any other directives, written or verbal, the only people who can decide on the gravesite, including the monument that is placed there, is the person or people who own the Deed of Grant. While others can have opinions or even believe that the deceased directed them to carry out a particular wish, the cemetery is legally obligated to only do what the deed holder directs them to do.

The only way to get around this rule is to find proof of a directive from the deceased specifying what they wanted and to take the matter to a probate court. Be aware that this is usually a long and costly process; without express written directives, winning this type of fight is almost always impossible.

Multiple Deed Owners

In places where multiple people can be listed on a Deed of Grant, occasional conflicts arise between the group deed holders regarding the grave. While it is strongly recommended that multiple deed holders try to resolve these conflicts among themselves, most cemeteries, by law, must have the approval of all deed holders before making any changes to a grave. There are no exceptions for a "majority vote."

Remember that this is the case even if the grave plot is owned by a combination of people who will be buried in the plot and people who will not. Based on this distinction, the law does not give any type of preference to deed holders.

Because of this, it is strongly recommended that people pre-plan their final arrangements, including the design of their memorial marker. Leaving clear, written instructions along with enough funds to cover construction of the marker is often the only way to ensure that there will be no conflicts in the future. This is particularly important in the case of shared plots, where multiple people may have very strong opinions on what they want.

If you're interested in ordering a headstone, visit us at Quiring Monuments. We have hundreds of design options, and experienced consultants that can help guide you through the memorial creation process.