Presumption of Death – the seven year rule

Many people are familiar with a so-called ‘seven year rule’ when dealing with a missing person’s affairs. Whilst this time period has significance, there are cases in which a person’s affairs may be resolved much sooner – or indeed later – than seven years.

Why seven years?

Law on marriage and civil partnership states that the fact that a person has been missing for seven or more years (and there is no reason to believe that person is alive) is evidence that the person is dead. In these circumstances the court would be likely to make a presumption of death and dissolution order (unless there was other evidence that the person may be alive). This order cannot be used, however, to administer the missing person’s estate, or for other purposes.

Seven years is also relevant in applying to administer a missing person’s estate via a grant of probate. For up to seven years after a person has last been seen, the court presumes that the person is still alive. After seven years, a court may allow a missing person’s affairs to be dealt with, provided that: there are persons who would be likely to have heard of the missing person during that period; those persons have not heard of the missing person; and reasonable attempts have been made to find the missing person. If, however, there have been indications that the person was alive within those seven years, the passing of time, in itself, will not be enough for the court to assume that the missing person is dead.

When does it not apply?

There are exceptions to this seven year time period. Relatives of people who disappear in circumstances which present an immediate threat to their life may apply to a court to administer their affairs much sooner than seven years. This may be appropriate, for example, if a person goes missing at sea or if there is other evidence to indicate the person has died, such as through suicide, or in a large-scale disaster or terrorist attack.

Read solicitor Sarah Goodwin’s piece on myths around the 7 year rule, and when it does not apply.

Is the missing person automatically declared as presumed dead?

No, there is no automatic declaration. The family or other interested party must apply to the court for a specific purpose e.g. to deal with the missing person’s estate. The court will grant permission to deal with the estate if it is satisfied by the information provided to it – this will include what efforts have been made to find the missing person, and may include evidence from the police and other searching organisations.

However, a grant of probate does not amount to a declaration of presumed death, and is not conclusive in any other legal proceedings that may be needed, e.g. dissolving a marriage.

Where can I get more information?

Missing People recognises that dealing with a missing relative’s financial affairs can be both daunting and upsetting. The team is available around the clock if you would like to talk about how you are feeling throughout this process.

Would you like a copy of this information in a PDF? If so, click here to download it.


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