Lord Lucan has been back in the news, with his son’s bid to inherit the title from his father, who disappeared in 1974 after the family nanny was found murdered.
But it throws into sharp focus the plight of around 30 – 40 families a year who lose a family member but are unable to prove a death.
The Presumption of Death Act 2013, which came into force in England and Wales in October 2014, much improved their position. Under the new law, which was passed after a lengthy campaign from the charity Missing People, families can apply for a Certificate of Presumed Death, which acts like a death certificate and means the estate can be administered.
However, many legal professionals are unfamiliar with the new law, and Missing People is actively campaigning to get it better known.
“Although the law helps families resolve their loved one’s affairs, making the decision to apply for a Declaration of Presumed Death is a difficult, daunting and emotional one,” said Susannah Drury, Director of Policy, Research and Development at Missing People, “The process is currently made all the more challenging as we know that there is a shortage of legal and financial professionals who are familiar with the new legislation.”
Sarah Young, Partner at Ridley and Hall Legal Limited, in Huddersfield, has used the Act a number of times and has more cases underway. “It’s working well,” she says, “It’s great that we now have this Act as it has raised public awareness that someone can be legally presumed to have died. The Act is also very useful in that it can dissolve a marriage or a civil partnership. Previously a separate application had to be made.”
She acknowledges, though, that even some legal professionals are not aware of the Act and have still been advising people they need to wait seven years. The fact that the Act refers to the old seven year rule does not help, she says.
The cost is also expensive for many people. Apart from the £480 fee, they have to place an ad in the local paper, which can easily be £200. They also find that placing an ad, and the requirement to send copies of court papers to any relative are a breach of their privacy, and can be problematic if family members don’t get on well or haven’t been in touch. “I suppose it is important as if it was private it could be concealing something dodgy,” she concedes, “but the families don’t much like it.”
Missing People’s Susannah Drury cites the case of one family whose suicidal 20 year old son with Asperger’s Syndrome disappeared in 2012. While he was witnessed jumping from the Humber Bridge, and had left suicide notes, no body was found, and the family decided to pursue a Certificate of Presumed Death.
The young man’s mother found she had to manage the application on her own after finding local law firms unfamiliar with the process. While it was ‘bittersweet’ when the judge granted a Presumption of Death certificate, the family was finally able to deal with such practicalities as closing accounts and stopping letters addressed to him.
Rita Bhargava TEP, a partner at Russell-Cooke Solicitors in London, notes how important this is for families. “While the Act cannot address the trauma and emotional struggles caused by the disappearance of a loved one, it will finally allow the family to deal with their loved one’s estate, giving them some closure,” she says.
Missing People has published information for professionals working with families on a missing person’s financial or legal affairs:
- Information for professionals
- Family Guidance on Presumption of Death
- Government Guidance
- STEP – Find a Member
Joanna Pegum, STEP PR & Media Executive