U.K., France to Amend Death Declaration Laws

January 17, 2005

The U.K., France and other European countries whose citizens lost their lives, or are still missing, in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunamis, are considering ways to amend their laws governing when a missing person may be declared legally dead.

The U.K. currently requires that a person be missing for 7 years before such a declaration will be issued. France requires 10. The effect of the laws is to greatly delay access to bank accounts, transfer of assets, payments of benefits and other claims, including life insurance policy payments.

The U.S. is even more complicated, as each state has its own laws and procedures for declaring a missing person legally dead. Most states follow English Common law and require that, absent other evidence, 7 years pass before a death declaration will be issued.

The British government is proposing adoption of a new law that would allow the relatives of U.K. residents missing in the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster to have them legally declared dead after one year. The measure is expected to be signed into law soon.

While a number of bodies of foreign nationals have been recovered, many more are still missing, and more than three weeks after the disaster there is little hope that they will ever be found.

The U.K. death toll stands at 51, but there are another 403 persons reported missing. Most of them are now presumed to have perished in the tsunami, and the likelihood of recovering their remains is minimal, as they were probably washed out to sea, meaning that no identifiable body can be recovered. Barring a change in the law, the current 7 year waiting period would apply.

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