Court Upholds Head-Freezing Contract

May 27, 2010 | Erin Herbold


All fifty states have adopted a version of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA).  State legislatures adopted these acts to encourage the making of anatomical gifts and to govern “dignified disposition of human remains.” The drafters of the UAGA anticipated problems between an independent donor’s decision and the interests of surviving family members and specified that the surviving family has rights to the remains only after the donor’s intent is satisfied. Iowa adopted the UAGA in 1968 and the Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (RUAGA) in 2007 (codified at Iowa Code Ch. 142C.) 

In 2004, five years before his death, the decedent made arrangements with an Arizona non-profit corporation studying cryonic suspension to have his head cryopreserved (a procedure which freezes the bodies/brains of people who have been declared legally dead at temperatures of -100 degrees Celsius or lower) “with the hope that future medical development [would] allow the restoration of life and health.” The decedent signed a “Last Will and Testament for Human Remains and Authorization of Anatomical Donation” and paid the company a lump sum lifetime membership of $53,500.  About three years later, the decedent became incapacitated with dementia and his two living siblings were appointed by the state as his co-conservators.  They found interest checks that the company had made to the decedent and asked the company to re-issue them so that they could be cashed.  The company did so.  About two years later, the decedent died intestate and his siblings had his remains buried without notifying the company.  Two months later, they demanded that the company return the money it had been paid.  However, the company sued for permission to exhume the body and fulfill the decedent’s wishes.   The company maintained that Iowa’s RUAGA applied to prohibit revocation of the decedent's gift by anyone other than the donor.  Interestingly, the company made this request even though, according to the company’s own information, the cryonics procedure must begin within a few minutes of the decedent’s death.

The brother and sister admitted that the decedent had talked about donating his head to science and that they had informed him they wanted nothing to do with his plan. As a result, the decedent never brought the plan up to his siblings again.  The brother and sister also claimed that they had no knowledge of the specific arrangements made between the non-profit and their brother, and that the non-profit failed to contact them regarding the arrangements, even though the company knew that they were co-conservators of their brother due to his dementia and that the state had named appointed them co-administrators of his estate. At trial, the court determined that it did not have the authority under Iowa law to order the brother and sister to execute an application to have their brother disinterred.  The trial court judge pointed out that Iowa law allows only families to control final disposition of a family-member’s remains, with an exception for situations where the decedent had issued a declaration of third-party or alternate designation after July 1, 2008. 

On appeal, the Iowa Court of Appeals examined Iowa’s RUAGA to ascertain the legislature’s intent.  Iowa law states that once an anatomical gift is made by a donor, no one other than the donor may amend or revoke the gift. The brother and sister initially questioned whether the company was able to receive such anatomical gifts under the Iowa Code. Iowa Code §142C.5(1)(a) states that an anatomical gift may be made to an “appropriate person for research or education.” Though at the time of the decedent’s death the company was not technically licensed as a “procurement organization,” the company did meet the IRS definition for “appropriate person for research.” Thus, the decedent’s gift was allowable on this basis. 

However, the tougher question was whether a transaction whereby an individual actually pays an organization to accept a future anatomical gift qualifies under Iowa’s RUAGA.  The appellate court expressed concern that this transaction was more akin to a bargained-for contract than a gift (which requires donative intent, delivery, and acceptance.) However, the court concluded that a transaction where the donor compensates the donee by way of a “reasonable payment” in order to complete a cryogenic gift of this kind is valid if the donor intended to make the gift. In this case, the decedent clearly wanted to undergo cryopreservation and “our state historically has ranked the decedent’s preferences highly.”   The siblings also pointed out that the company’s request for relief was moot given that, by the company’s own admission, the cryonics procedure would not work given the amount of time that the decedent’s body had been buried.  But, the court disagreed, noting that a finding of mootness would require the court to make “scientific and philosophical judgments” that the court was not prepared to make.  The appellate court did, however, indicate that some clarification in this area by the legislature would be helpful. Alcor Life Extension Foundation v. Richardson, 785 N.W.2d 717 (Iowa Ct. App. 2010).