"The certificate of presumed death that we are introducing is a significant step forward for families who face the terrible situation of losing a loved one and creates a simpler legal framework to ensure bereaved people can better deal with the property and affairs of a loved one who has gone missing and is presumed dead.“ Former Justice Minister, Helen Grant MP, March 2013
Every year approximately 250,000 people are reported missing to police forces and other agencies across the United Kingdom. Whilst most disappearances are resolved relatively quickly, others continue for weeks, months and even years, leaving family members to cope with the pain of not knowing where their loved one is or what has happened to them.
Yet in addition to emotional trauma, families can also encounter a range of practical, financial and legal difficulties as a result of a disappearance. In particular, those in England and Wales can face a complex legal position when looking to resolve a missing relative’s affairs when it is believed they have died. This stems from flaws in the existing system, yet this will soon change following years of campaigning by Missing People.
As part of Missing Rights, we campaigned for presumption of death law to be reformed in line with that already in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure that all UK families have access to a clear and useable system. The Presumption of Death Act 2013, has achieved this by creating a new court procedure which can lead to the issue of a Certificate of Presumed Death.
What difficulties were created by the former system?
Over time, some families accept that their relative is ‘missing, presumed dead’. Yet when they previously attempted to resolve their loved one’s financial and legal affairs, families in England and Wales were faced with a confusing and fractured system:
“No one seems to know the correct way to proceed with this or what paperwork they need from me to enable me to deal with my husband’s affairs, not the insurance company, solicitors and even the courts… I feel very let down and frustrated.” Wife of a missing man
Even when it seems clear that a missing person is most likely to be dead, in the absence of a body, it was very difficult to register that person’s death, or to obtain legal proof of the death, such as through a death certificate. Without a such legal proof, families could struggle to prove that their relative has died in order to administer their estate, dissolve a marriage, claim benefits and life insurance, mortgage a house etc. They were often faced with pursuing separate legal processes in order to resolve different affairs (obtaining a grant of probate, for example, will not automatically dissolve a marriage), which could be very bureaucratic and lead to lengthy delays.
This could be costly, upsetting and cumbersome for families, and was particularly frustrating for those who were aware that a simplified and consolidated process was already successfully in place for families in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The former system was also problematic for institutions that require legal documentation before they are able to release a missing person’s assets, and agencies that had a part to play within the system:
“There is a real call for change and I would contend it is not just by the relatives directly affected by a missing person but by the professionals who are left having to advise families as to the law.” Solicitor acting on behalf of a family
The Presumption of Death Act 2013 ensures that these families – along with the professionals that work with them – at last have access to a comprehensive, yet straightforward, system.
For more information, see our policy briefing ‘Presumption of Death Act 2013’, which includes a frequently asked questions section, here.
If you are a family looking for guidance on presumption of death, see our Family Guidance pages.
Missing People is very grateful to Clifford Chance LLP for its pro bono support throughout the charity’s work on presumption of death. This information has additionally been created with Clifford Chance LLP’s kind assistance.