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Will Power: How the Presumption of Death Act 2013 has brought closure for the families of missing people…

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The legacy of Lord Lucan lives on. This month, Ben Brown discusses how the Presumption of Death Act 2013 has brought closure for the families of missing people…

We are all familiar with the peculiar case of Lord Lucan and the countless conspiracy theories about his disappearance in 1974. The story has spawned numerous books and TV documentaries about his life and alleged sightings during the last 40 years.

However, it wasn’t until recently that his ‘death’ was formally registered and his estate could be administered. His family was left in limbo for decades, until the Presumption of Death Act came into force in October 2014.

How do you pronounce someone legally ‘dead’?

Courts can declare someone ‘dead’ when they are in fact presumed to be dead or have not been known to be alive for at least seven years.

When this law was introduced four years ago, it was welcomed by the families of missing people, who have been left not only with the heartache of losing a loved one, but also the legal and financial difficulties of not being able to deal with their estate.

How does this work in practice?

I am currently handling a case concerning a gentleman who disappeared the same year as Lord Lucan. For the purposes of this example, we’ll call him ‘Steven.’

We know he was born in Singapore, but the exact date and place of birth remain a mystery, due to the limited records available.

Steven came to London in the 1960’s to work as a waiter and later became a cabin crew member of an international airline. It was during his time in the capital that he met and married our client’s mother, a Spanish national, with whom he had a family.

Due to the nature of his job, Steven spent a lot of time away and this put strain on his marriage. He had purchased the family home in his sole name, but in 1974, when our client was still a young boy, he left unexpectedly and was never seen again.

Despite extensive enquiries, there is no record of Steven’s whereabouts after his disappearance. It is possible he could have left the UK, thank to his links with the travel industry, but this was never proved.

Steven’s wife lived in the family home until her death in 2003. Unfortunately, as her son couldn’t prove his entitlement to the property, it remained empty for a number of years, until the local authority decided to take action.

Using powers granted by the Housing Act 2004, councils can obtain possession of an empty property, via an Empty Dwelling Management Order. They subsequently arranged for one of their tenants to move into our client’s family home. As you can imagine, this was a very difficult situation for him to accept.

After consulting us, we came up with a plan of action to gain possession of the property from the council, but first, we needed an order for Steven’s presumed death.

Although the process is far from straightforward, we are now nearing the final stages of this case and hope the property will soon be returned to our client. At last, we may be able to bring an end to this tragic and unfortunate situation.

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