Advice on what steps to take if a friend or relative is missing and/or presumed dead, and the kind of support a specialist SFE lawyer can offer

It’s an astounding fact that around 250,000 people go missing in the UK each year. Approximately 2000 people remain missing after 12 months, and for the families affected, a disappearance can be emotionally (and financially) devastating.

There is currently no way to manage the affairs of a missing person in the hope that they will return; as a result, the charity Missing People is campaigning for the introduction of ‘guardianship’ legislation.

I have acted in 17 cases involving people who have gone missing and were presumed to have died - either by way of suspected murder, suicide or misadventure.

If the missing person is presumed to have died, anyone can apply at any point after the disappearance for a declaration of presumed death under the Presumption of Death Act 2013. The Act provides that a declaration can be made where a person who is missing:

(a) is thought to have died or

(b) has not been known to be alive for a period of at least 7 years.

The application is to the High Court and should be made by the spouse or civil partner, parent, child or sibling of the missing person.  The court may refuse to give permission to anyone else if the applicant does not have a ‘sufficient interest’. In a recent contested case my client was a cohabitee, and the judge was not convinced that she was entitled to apply, but allowed the claim as she was also the executrix of the missing person’s will and owned a property jointly with him.

Part 8 of the Civil Procedure Rules applies together with Part 57 and Practice Direction 57B of the CPR which set out the procedure to be followed and information required (in exhaustive detail). 

Notice of the claim must be given to the family together with any other person (including any insurance company) appearing to the claimant to have “interest in the claim”. This means that potentially quite a lot of people will see the missing person’s personal financial information.

Emotions can be raw, and sometimes the statements filed by family members are not easy reading.

If banks or financial institutions refuse to disclose information that they hold on the missing person (this happens a lot) then a third party disclosure order may be needed, under section 12 (1) of the Act.

A declaration includes a finding as to the date and time of the death and is effective in relation to the missing person’s property and finances.  It may be varied or revoked by a variation order. A declaration irrevocably ends a marriage or civil partnership. Once it is noted on the Register of Presumed Death, an application can be made for a grant of probate/letters of administration as appropriate.

That’s a very quick overview! I’m happy to provide more information on request.

Sarah Young is a litigation partner with Ridley and Hall solicitors in Huddersfield. Her specialisation in the niche area of missing people has been recognised in the latest issue of the Legal 500. She works closely with the charity ‘Missing People’ and has long campaigned for legislation to be improved in this area of law.

In relation to her contentious probate practice, she represented the claimant in the much reported 2014 case Wright v Waters.  The decision is of huge significance to adult children who seek to challenge a parent’s Will, having been estranged from them.

Sarah also acts in complex/high value accident claims and has a Masters degree in advanced personal injury law. She is a member of the Association of Contentious Trust And Probate Specialists and Solicitors for the Elderly.

From 2006 to 2011 she acted as the firm’s Managing Partner and won the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS) Award for Managing a Small Practice in September 2009. The AWS has over 18,000 members. She was then one of 5 women solicitors shortlisted in the AWS Legal Business Woman of the Year category at the prestigious Law Society Excellence Awards. Sarah was a finalist in the Women in Business Awards 2015 (Yorkshire and North East) in the “Inspiring Leader” category.

sarah.young@ridleyandhall.co.uk

www.ridleyandhall.co.uk