Tattoos are, without a doubt, popular. According to a clinical report in Pediatrics, in 2010, 38% of 18 to 29 year olds had at least one tattoo. A study conducted in 2015 found that 47% of Millennials had at least one tattoo. Tattoos, once the hallmark of rebel culture, have now crossed over into the mainstream. It may be that the rebels are the ones without tattoos.

Tattoos are now also making a mark on the administration of estates.

Take Chris Wenzel, who died in 2018. His dying wish was that his tattoos, which covered most of his body, be preserved and given to his wife. According to a CBC report, with the assistance of an organization called “Save My Ink Forever”, she was able to preserve Chris’ tattoos.

Legal issues relating to the process are discussed in the December 2019 issue of Step Journal. In an article entitled “Whose Skin Is It Anyway?”, authors Julia Burns and Matthew Watson discuss the legal implications of such tattoo preservation services from the point of view of English and Welsh succession law.

One issue is that in the common law, there is “no property in a corpse”. A person cannot dispose of their own body through their will. However, the authors note that courts are relaxing this rule, particularly where the body or parts have “a use or significance beyond their mere existence”.

Estate trustees have the responsibility of disposing of the body. The deceased’s wishes are not binding on the estate trustee. However, while not binding, they are relevant. The authors cite a decision, RE JS (Disposal of Body), [2016] EWHC 2859 (Fam), where the deceased asked that her body be cryogenically frozen. The deceased’s mother wanted to abide by these wishes, but her father did not. The court appointed the mother as estate trustee. The court could not order that the wishes of the deceased be followed, but did order that the father be restrained from interfering with the mother’s arrangements as estate trustee.

If a tattoo is property of the estate, how is it to be disposed of? The authors suggest that the will should specifically address this.

Another issue that the authors identify is whether an estate trustee would have an obligation to preserve a tattoo, assuming that it has value. Is such a tattoo an asset of the estate that the estate trustee must “call in”? There appears to be no easy answer to this. However, the authors conclude that “Common law’s strength is its ability to adapt to new social developments; treating preserved tattoos as art that can be disposed of in the same manner as any other chattel may be one of them.”

Thanks for reading.

Paul Trudelle