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Dying without a next of kin: what happens?

Oct 30, 2023 | Uncategorised

When a person dies, their estate needs to be distributed. The first port of call is the will. This is a legally binding document that sets out who should receive what.

If they die without a will, the so-called “rules of intestacy” govern the process. These determine the order of priority for receiving a share of the estate.

But what if a person dies intestate and without a next of kin?

Before we answer this question, let’s take a look at the term “next of kin” itself. What exactly does it mean in this context?

What is “next of kin”?

We’re all familiar with situations where you have to name your next of kin – the most common one being admission to hospital.

However, you might be surprised to learn that there’s no legal definition for the term in the UK. This contrasts sharply with other countries such as the USA, where “next of kin” confers legal responsibilities.

In the UK, your next of kin is generally understood to be your closest relative. Depending on your marital and parental status, this could be a husband, wife, civil partner, adult child, parent or sibling.

But it doesn’t have to be a blood relative or spouse. You can nominate anyone to be your next of kin – a friend or neighbour, for instance.

However, the person nominated has to agree to the nomination. Without this agreement, the nomination is invalid.

Being somebody’s next of kin doesn’t give you any legal rights or special responsibilities (except in the context of the Mental Health Act). It definitely doesn’t mean that you’ll inherit any of the person’s estate when they die – unless this is specified in the will.

However, if the will doesn’t name any executors – or there’s no will at all – then the next of kin is responsible for registering the death, organising the funeral and sorting out the administration of the estate.

What happens if a person dies without a next of kin?

If a person dies without a next of kin and without a will, their estate and funeral are dealt with by the council.

First, the council carries out a property search. The purpose of this is to gather any information about the deceased – first from the property itself, then from friends and neighbours. The person responsible for this tries to build a picture of the dead person and their finances.

The question of finances is important. If a person has left money, this will go towards paying for their funeral.

According to the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, the council is legally obliged to organise the funeral for a person who died without next of kin.

As you might imagine, these funerals are no-frills affairs. They exist simply to give the deceased a send-off in the absence of family or next of kin.

What happens to their estate?

The rules of intestacy determine who inherits what. In the absence of surviving relatives, the estate passes to the Crown in a process known as “bona vacantia” (“vacant goods” or “ownerless property”).

In England, this process is handled by the Government Legal Department’s Treasury Solicitor. The estate can be claimed for 12 years, after which it’s declared “ownerless” and passed to the Crown.

In Lancashire, Manchester and Cornwall, this function is delegated to law firm Farrer & Co.

What happens in Scotland?

In Scotland, there’s a small team in the national prosecution service called the National Ultimus Haeres Unit. Ultimus haeres is Latin for “last heir”.

Like English councils, their job is to try to find a will, along with evidence of any blood relatives and any assets that may have been left after death.

There’s a vivid description of the process on the BBC website. The Ultimus Haeres team are sleuth-like in their pursuit of information about the deceased.

A property search might involve, for instance, removing photos from frames to see if any telling information is written on the back. Tins, jars, suitcases and other everyday receptacles are opened for possible evidence.

Take the case of Carol, who lived in a tenement in Glasgow:

“Signs that she had lived a full life are peppered around Carol’s cluttered flat.

“Photos with smiling people her age and younger; an old passport with stamps from around the globe; snorkelling equipment found at the back of a wardrobe.”

The team collects and logs cash and valuables. Next, they speak to social workers and the housing association. They trace a friend. But in this case, they don’t get the information they need.

What is intestacy?

Intestacy means dying without a will. It’s distinct from dying without a next of kin.

If someone you know dies intestate, there are rules which govern who’s entitled to get a share of the estate. You can learn more at the government website.

Can you change your next of kin?

If you don’t have a straightforward relationship with a close family member, you may not want them to take charge of your estate when you die.

If this is the case, you can change your next of kin via legal documentation – your will and, if appropriate, your lasting power of attorney (LPA). In these documents, you can specify who you want to manage your affairs on your behalf.

How an inheritance lawyer can help you

If you are having trouble relating to a will or estate, it can be advisable to seek legal advice. A good inheritance solicitor will furnish you with the facts you need to make decisions with confidence at a difficult time.

They can help with anything from will writing to inheritance tax planning, from establishing a trust to writing or interpreting an LPA.

Are you looking for an experienced, knowledgeable, no-nonsense inheritance lawyer? Feel free to get in touch for a no-obligation consultation.


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