Monday, 12 October 2015

Presumption of Death - one year on

Susannah Drury, Director of Policy, Research and Development at Missing People

“Michael was 20 years old when he went missing in 2012. As a young man with Asperger Syndrome he suffered depression and attempted suicide in his teens. After he went missing, suicide notes were found in his room and at the scene – he was witnessed jumping from the Humber Bridge by two members of the public. With this in mind, Michael’s family were convinced that he had died despite his body not being found and organised a memorial service for him at his university. They contacted the charity Missing People for support around getting answers to some of their questions…including what processes were in place to get a “Certificate of Presumed Death” in order to provide the closure they were otherwise being denied as they were told it was unlikely Michael’s body would be found.”
A year ago, a vital new law was put in place to help people in the same heart-breaking situation as Michael’s family of having a loved one who is missing and is believed to have died. The charity Missing People together with families had been campaigning for years for this law because previously, when a missing person was thought to have died it was very complex, time consuming and costly for the family to resolve the missing person’s affairs and achieve the closure longed for by Michael’s family. This situation added immense stress and worry to families already going through unimaginable trauma.
The Presumption of Death Act means there is now a single legal process families can use to sort out their missing relative’s finances, property and legal affairs. Through the Act, families in England and Wales can apply to through the Courts for a Certificate of Presumed Death which acts like a death certificate and enables the family to sort out the missing person’s finances and property and administer their estate in line with their will. Similar systems are in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Although this law helps families resolve their loved one’s affairs, making the decision to apply for a Declaration of Presumed Death is difficult, daunting and emotional for families.  As Michael’s mum explains:
“It was bittersweet when the judge finally granted the application stating Michael was presumed dead, but it was worthwhile, finally, to be in a position to deal with practicalities….Presumption of Death has provided some practical closure, but the deep sadness remains, we miss Michael every day and always will.”
The charity Missing People has been supporting a number of families through this new process, and have become aware of some teething problems – with solicitors and families finding some aspects of the application process confusing, as explained by Michael’s mother Sue:
“Although the process was daunting and challenging, this was partly due to the legislation being very new; hopefully it will become easier with time.”
In the first year since the law came into place, 11 families have been granted a Declaration of Presumed Death with many more going through the application process.
We hope that Missing People’s updated Family Guidance on Presumption of Death, together with the new Government Guidance will help make the process more straightforward for families. Missing People also plans to publish a new list of “Frequently Asked Questions” about Presumption of Death based on questions that families have asked us. This should be available online by the end of October here
At Missing People, we are keen to ensure that families whose missing relative is thought to have died know about the Presumption of Death procedure and what it involves. We are therefore using the first year anniversary of the Act coming into force in October 2014 to promote Presumption of Death to families and professionals such as solicitors who might be approached by families interested in applying for it.  In addition, Missing People’s Family Support Team are on hand 24/7 through our helpline 116000 and email to advise and support families in this situation. 
Missing People also continues to campaign for a system of guardianship which would enable a family to step in and manage a missing person’s property and finances so that they are kept in order should the missing person return. We were delighted that the government announced plans in March 2015 to introduce this legislation, and we continue to campaign to ensure this happens as soon as possible.

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