Yes you read that correctly. When famous playwright Leonard Melfi passed away in his single room efficiency located in the Narragansett halfway house on 96 thStreet in Manhattan his body was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital and then shipped to the Nassau Community College Embalming School as a practice cadaver.

Leonard Melfi, was one of the most accomplished playwright’s of the 20 th century, composing over 70 plays with talents such as John Lennon. While a legend in the American theater, Leonard Melfi also suffered from alcoholism. Alcoholism cost Leonard Melfi everything he earned and caused him to push away all of his friends and family.

In October of 2001, while in his single room efficiency located in a New York halfway house Leonard Melfi began suffering terrible chest pains. He was taken to New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital where he died from a heart attack. Melfi’s body was later transferred to the City Morgue at Bellevue where it stayed unclaimed for several weeks. Mount Sinai listed no contacts on Melfi’s death certificate and made no effort to notify his next of kin before shipping his body off to the City Morgue.

Since Leonard Melfi’s family were never notified of his death, his body laid in the City Morgue for several weeks until it was shipped to the embalming program at Nassau Community College. Two months later Leonard’s neighbors at his halfway house noticed his absence and contacted Melfi’s family. Of course by then it was too late and his body had already been donated to the embalming program. After Melfi’s family was unable to get answers from Mount Sinai as to why they had not been contacted, they sued Mount Sinai. After an 11-year battle with the hospital, Leonard Melfi’s family was finally awarded $1.25 million dollars this month.

As an experienced NY estate lawyer practicing in Forest Hills, Queens, I can tell you in a City with 10 million people, having your affairs in order is vital. I do not think there is an estate lawyer practicing in New York who would be surprised by this story. The single best way to get your affairs in order is to prepare a simple will. A simple will appoints an executor who will be the named fiduciary of your estate and will also have your beneficiaries listed. As such, in the event of a death, they will find your will amongst your possessions and at least be able to identify your contacts.

Our firm is one of the few law offices in New York handling complex kinship cases. Kinship cases are fascinating cases occurring when someone passes without a will and close-surviving relatives, such as Leonard Melfi. From experience I can tell you this occurs more frequently than one would think. Normally an investigation to locate next of kin will be opened by the Public Administrator’s office. However in this case it seems Mount Sinai failed to file a report of death before shipping Melfi’s body to the morgue or conducting any investigation of their own. The fact Melfi lived a solitary life in a halfway house without a traditional landlord did not help. As a NY estate lawyer it is not hard for me to imagine this happening quite often where people who are down on their luck die in a City this large.

In NY, when we die without a will or close surviving relatives we are actually putting our fate in the hands of a sometimes dysfunctional bureaucratic system. Obviously shipping Melfi’s body, one of the most gifted playwright’s of our time, to an embalming program was improper. I’m not saying this happens with regularity but why take the chance?

If you or a loved one are thinking about planning their estate and would like to sit down with an experienced NY estate probate lawyer feel free to call the Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free estate consultation at (718) 261-2444.

Our NY and NJ estate lawyers have nearly 45 years of combined NY estate law experience drafting and probating the wills for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Orange and Dutchess. We also have extensive experience probating the wills for families in NJ.

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