Legal advice need for dealing with the funeral/estate of a friend
November 16, 2018 3:12 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I have taken on responsibility for arranging the funeral of a family friend. We have some questions about some of the practical considerations of handling this and about the deceased’s personal possessions. UK advice sought, England & Wales specifically. YANAL, TINLA etc understood – I have been given a very small bit of free advice by a solicitor but am unable to pay for legal advice. N.b. I have used the term probate where I believe that letters of administration might sometimes be the correct legal term, please assume I am referring to one or both.

Our friend died unexpectedly just over a week ago. The death was referred to the coroner and there will be an inquest. There is no spouse, the family have been in infrequent contact and are unable/unwilling to handle the funeral. The deceased did have a child but has not seen the child (who would now be an adult) for many years, we have no contact details and are not sure the deceased would have been on the birth certificate.

We have had agreement from an appropriate family member that we will handle the funeral arrangements and these are now underway. My partner identified the body and signed the paperwork at the mortuary, and we understand that in due course we will receive an interim death certificate so that we can continue with the funeral arrangements and informing appropriate authorities of the death. The deceased had no property and as far as we know no personal items of any value, probably just a small amount of cash in the bank (<£500) and personal possessions (books, CDs, photos, some sporting equipment of low value but possibly high sentimental value to quite a few people none of whom are blood relatives). We have no interest in the cash value of any of this (although I suppose it might be used towards funeral costs, but we have no interest otherwise) but are not sure what to do about the items of sentimental value. There is no will, hence no executor, and at this point no one has applied for probate.

The deceased lived in privately rented housing. This will need to be cleaned due to the presence of blood and at any rate the property will at some point have to be returned to the landlord. As the people handling the funeral arrangements, we need to access the property to retrieve clothing for the funeral, and probably a few documents so we can notify the bank etc. We don’t have any interest in the deceased’s personal possessions save for the desire to see them not be binned, although we think the deceased would have liked some of them to go to charity or something.
So far, the family member we have been in contact with has been very happy with this arrangement, however a second family member has also now been in contact, and while they seem happy for us to pay for and arrange the funeral, they have asked for a copy of the death certificate. We have some reason to believe they may apply for probate, which I believe is their right, but we are a little concerned about any potential comeback on us should we remove any personal items such as we have already mentioned above, or even if we enter the property to clean it.

My questions are:

1) Am I correct in understanding that if the estate is worth less than £5000 then probate cannot be granted? If this is the case, who has the right to dispose of the deceased’s property? If no one steps up to do it, what happens and whose responsibility is it? As the organiser of the funeral, if we take such personal items that are necessary for the funeral (e.g. clothing) would we be likely to open ourselves up to possible legal action should a family member then apply for probate? Does being the person who signed the coroner’s paperwork following the post mortem and who identified the body confer any sort of legal status with regards to sorting out the estate – can they for instance apply for probate themselves (they are not related by blood).

2) The property needs to be emptied and cleaned as soon as possible. The family member we have mainly been in contact with indicated they would like family photos and a specific item of jewellery, but nothing else, and that they would be unable/unwilling to have the property cleaned and emptied. If no one from the deceased’s family applies for probate, can someone else sort the property out, and do they need permission?

3) What sort of effort are the family or us or whoever expected to make to trace the deceased’s son? (If anyone has any suggestions as to how we would start doing this, that would be welcome too)

4) What reasons, other than applying for probate, might someone want a copy of the death certificate?

I f anyone has any ideas on where I might be able to get further information and advice on any of this, please pass them on. Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (8 answers total)
I can't answer any of the UK legal questions, but as to what reasons, other than applying for probate, might someone want a copy of the death certificate, if the family member is planning to attend the funeral, it may be for a bereavement fare for the airline or bereavement leave from work. At least that seems an innocuous or benign possibility.
posted by Pax at 6:49 AM on November 16, 2018

The cleaning is optional.

If you don't clean, the landlord will take the cleaning out of the bond your friend paid when they started the lease.
posted by Murderbot at 7:33 AM on November 16, 2018

What reasons, other than applying for probate, might someone want a copy of the death certificate?

In the US a lot of times this is necessary to do things like

- close a bank account
- cancel cable without a penalty
- otherwise address debts of a deceased person
- establish oneself as an executor (along with other paperwork)
- gain access to a safe deposit box
- start the "payable upon death" process for things like investment and retirement accounts

I am sorry for your loss, I'm not sure if this is helpful but the US rule of thumb is "get ten death certificates" I did this for both my parents and used over half of them.
posted by jessamyn at 8:40 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

This document seems designed to answer some of your questions. I am not from UK so don't know anything, but this document seems to suggest that probate/letters can be issued for estate under 5k. It also seems to suggest that such authority is (if ever) only rarely granted to a non-family-member. And if one does take on that authority, it comes with real responsibilities and potential liabilities.

I do not mean to be clinical in what I am sure is a difficult time for you, but I would suggest that if you can do so emotionally, you should avoid taking on responsibilities that are not yours. You do not have to do anything about cleaning the apartment. You do not have to (and I in your shoes would not) distribute any item (e.g., photos, jewelry) to anyone even if they ask you for that favor; it is not yours to distribute. If the landlord will let you in to apartment to obtain a set of clothes, then I personally would be ok doing that after telling all known relatives in writing that I am doing so (and take nothing other than the clothes).

I know it may be hard not to do more, and I am sorry for your loss.
posted by sheldman at 9:32 AM on November 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Just as a note, unless there is some really compelling reason to do otherwise, it might even be in your best interests to purchase a set of clothing. In this fashion, you do not need to enter the apartment at all.
posted by oflinkey at 9:43 AM on November 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

If what what you want to do is organise your friend's funeral then I think you should contact a funeral director and explain the situation to them. They will be able to help you navigate this. Citizens Advice have information about organising funerals and you may be able to get more help and advice directly from them. Your local authority might also be a good source of help.

I'm not sure whether you have a sense of funeral costs, but I would set aside around £3k-£4k for a cremation. The funeral director would be able to advise on someone appropriate to lead the funeral (eg minister, humanist celebrant,...) and you should be able to work with them to give your friend the right send off.

Given that there is no will, the person who inherits your friend's estate is their child, including everything in the property that belonged to your friend. Only a close relative can apply for letters of administration to deal with the estate, but even though you don't need them to apply for them for small estates, everything still has to go to your friend's child not simply as you think best. And note that even if the estate is small, someone can still apply to administer it.

I too would suggest that you leave the property alone and make sure any keys you have are returned to the landlord, you have neither the responsibility nor the right to do more, and it may well cause longer-term problems if you do so.

I'm sorry for your loss, and for the position you're left in.
posted by plonkee at 10:19 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

IAAL, IANYL, TINLA. Probate isn't my field, but as far as I know, there's a small estates exemption if the estate's under £5K - so Letters of Administration probably won't be needed. (A Grant of Probate is where there's a will, if there's no will it's Letters of Admin.)

There's some helpful links on the Cruse website (the UK organisation for grief counselling) which should give you a steer on what to do, or who to get help and advice from.

Please make sure you get confirmation in writing for everything you're doing from the family. They are next of kin, and really it's their responsibility to deal with this. It's all very well that they're happy for you to handle things now, but that might change.

Funerals are expensive, even the most basic - and once you've signed the contract with the funeral directors you personally are responsible for paying for it. I know this because I used to do debt collection for a large funeral company. So I would strongly suggest you leave the funeral arrangements to the family. You might find yourself in the hole for thousands of pounds otherwise.
posted by essexjan at 11:49 AM on November 16, 2018

The landlord may have some authority to dispose of items left unclaimed in the apartment. Since it is privately rented, you might suggest to the landlord that you can put them in touch with someone (I would suggest a different friend, not you) who could help arrange for some of the belonging to be disposed via gifts to his friends.This would be done based on the landlord's rights to dispose of the property, not as someone trying to settle the estate.
posted by metahawk at 11:52 AM on November 16, 2018

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