Medical Research and the Ultimate Gift

In my experience, I have drafted Wills and other estate planning documents in literally all shapes and sizes. Many clients take a very traditional approach, leaving their estates to their surviving spouse, then to children, and so forth. Others take a less traditional approach, making specific gifts for the care of animal companions, philanthropic organizations or churches. On occasion, a client will ask me how to make arrangements for what I consider the “ultimate gift,” the donation of their body to the advancement of science.

While I could probably spend an entire entry waxing on the state of cryonics, Ted Williams and the likelihood of reviving a deceased (and frozen) loved one with future medical technology, I thought a more practical discussion of current medical donation opportunities might be more appropriate. Many Texans are already organ donors, and so the concept of donating an entire body to science is gaining the approval of some clients who desire for even their remains to provide some kind of legacy.

UT Southwestern Medical Center, as well as the Texas A&M Health Science Center, provide some excellent information related to body donation. Both require the completion of some very basic forms which are, of course, revocable. Each institution also outlines the procedure that occurs upon the death of the donee, as well as the requirements that must be met before a body is accepted. While the advice of an estate planning attorney should be sought in connection with the gift, it is not necessarily needed in all cases.

The body must be suitable for scientific or educational research. That is, it cannot be embalmed, and an excessive amount of time after death cannot have passed. Certain conditions, such as trauma or contagious diseases may also prevent acceptance. Generally speaking, the institutions retain the body for two years depending upon their needs. At the conclusion of the institution’s use, the body is cremated. The remains are either returned to the family for a nominal fee, or disposed of appropriately by the institution.

Of the clients that I’ve counseled concerning these matters, I typically tell them to insert the gift into their Will, but to take the steps now to ensure that it can be fulfilled. Practically speaking, it may be weeks or months after death before a Will is admitted or even discovered, negating any chance of fulfilling the donation. Moreover, your loved ones should be aware of your plans as soon as you make them, so that they can take the appropriate steps to see your donation through in a timely manner.

Much of what we plan for involves things and money – the tangible parts of our lives that we realize we cannot take with us. With some foresight and a small amount of planning, you can make a gift that some might argue has a bit nobler intentions – one that will benefit the advancement of medical and scientific learning.