Presumed Death Following a Disappearance
Over 200,000 people are reported as missing each year in the UK, and a number of these missing persons remain so for an extended period of time. For families, the time an individual is missing can be incredibly emotional with fears that their loved one is dead battling with hope that (s)he is still alive and confusion about why (s)he would not get in touch. In general it takes at least seven years for a missing person to be declared presumed dead in the UK, though the legalities governing such a declaration differ in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. When death is declared, arranging for memorials for the presumed dead can help families and friends achieve closure.
Importance of Presumption of DeathEven when missing persons are listed as “”missing, presumed dead” this does not mean that they are automatically legally considered dead. On the contrary, it may simply be a classification that this person is still missing. For a legal presumption of death, a certificate or order of such must be issued. Having someone declared legally presumed dead when there is nobody can be tough, but it is important for a number of reasons. Unfreezing and settling a person’s assets and estates, allowing for inheritances, closing a person’s accounts, allowing for the dissolution of a marriage, claiming benefits and receiving insurance payments may all hinge on the legal declaration of a missing person’s presumed death. Emotionally, many family members and friends also find that they live in limbo until a presumed death is legally declared and that a declaration of presumed death is important to ending this uncertain state.
Legalities of Presumption of DeathIn Scotland, the Presumption of Death (Scotland) Act, 1977 governs the procedures of a legal declaration of presumed death following disappearance. In Northern Ireland, the Presumption of Death Bill was passed in 2009 which allows the High Court to declare a missing person presumed dead and the presumed death to be recorded in a Register of Presumed Deaths with a certificate of presumed death issued to family. In England and Wales there is no single procedure for the declaration of a presumed death and the issuance of a Presumption of Death Order. Currently the Family Division of the High Court deals with presumptions of death and it falls to the missing person’s family to bring proceedings and provide evidence of the likelihood of death. Investigations into the disappearance and presumed death of an individual are carried out at cost to the missing person’s estate. If the court is satisfied that a missing person has died then a Presumption of Death Order may be granted. Yet even with a Presumption of Death Order a marriage may not be dissolved, so further proceedings may need to be made. When a person has been declared legally presumed dead, that person’s legal status may then be considered “death in absentia”.
Memorials for Those Presumed DeadEven when there is no body recovered, hosting a memorial service can be incredibly important for family members hoping to achieve some measure of peace with the disappearance of a loved one from their lives. Plaques, statues and benches are all popular choices for memorial items and give loved ones something tangible to visit when they wish to remember their loved ones. Working with a member of the clergy, many families hold religious memorial services to say goodbye while other families may instead choose to hold more secular services at a location that held meaning to their loved one. Some families may also choose to bury something related to their loved on at the memorial site, for example a frame photograph or favourite item (flag, book, stuffed animal, etc). Memorial services are an important part of celebrating someone’s life and so flowers, music and speeches are all appropriate.
Declaring a presumed death following a disappearance can be a complicated, confusing, emotional process. Understanding the importance of a presumption of death, the legalities of a presumption of death and memorials for those presumed dead is important for those faced with this unusual situation.