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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

A Child's Death, A Legal Battle Over Her Burial, And A Proposed Change In The Law

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Dawn Krivanek testifies in favor of a bill that would clarify which parent can decide how the remains of a deceased child are handled. Her 15-year-old daughter died by suicide in 2016.

Losing a child is a devastating loss. But imagine if that death is followed by a legal battle. That’s what happened after a Mukilteo teenage died in 2016.

Now her mom is trying to change state law.

Dawn Krivanek lost her daughter Nina to suicide.

“Nina was a beautiful, smart and kind young woman who passed away three months after her 15th birthday,” Krivanek told a panel of Washington state lawmakers. She spoke about discovering her daughter, performing CPR and the wrenching decision later to take her off life support.

But it’s what happened after Nina’s death that brought Krivanek to Olympia. She and her former husband ended up in a legal battle over how to handle Nina’s remains—whether she would be buried in British Columbia or cremated.

He sued and they ended up in mediation.

Credit Dawn Krivanek
Fifteen-year-old Nina Smiljanic died by suicide in 2016. Following her death her divorced parents went through a legal fight over whether she would be buried in British Columbia or cremated.

“I didn’t feel like I actually got to start grieving until after we finally came to an agreement and her remains finally got to be placed,” Krivanek said.

Now Krivanek is pushing for a bill in Olympia to clarify who decides how a child’s remains are handled.

“This bill involves a tragedy, the death of a child,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Paul Graves. He proposes to give the ultimate decision to the parent who the child lives with the majority of the time. In cases of equal custody, the decision would fall to the parent whose home serves as the child’s primary address.

Graves acknowledges it’s not a perfect solution.

“Any rule that we have in this circumstance will in some cases be arbitrary and potentially unfair,” he said.

But Graves said that’s still better than the status quo. But his proposal faces opposition, including from Colleen LaMotte, a lawyer who represented Nina’s father

“I don’t believe that looking at residential time is the appropriate way to make this decision,” LaMotte said.

Instead, LaMotte said lawmakers should look at how divorced parents handle healthcare decisions—something that’s often dictated in a parenting plan.

Family law experts say disputes over the burial of a child are rare. But Nina’s mom said she wants to make sure no family goes through what she did.

“Families are having to deal with this and I just want to save them one step in the process if possible,” Krivanek said.

Krivanek said she hopes lawmakers pass a bill this year and call it Nina’s Law in her daughter’s memory.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."