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Tales of the unexpected

27 October 2017

An unexpected death, when no will or funeral plans have been made, can divide the family left behind, reports Rebecca Paveley


Family affair: clear funeral arrangements and a will may help the bereaved to cope

Family affair: clear funeral arrangements and a will may help the bereaved to cope

WHEN people die suddenly and unexpectedly, the burden of grief borne by their loved ones is often made all the heavier if there is no will, and no guidance on the funeral arrangements they would like.

Although the intestacy laws in the UK are “generally fair and protect people”, Richard Pennington says, dying without a will makes the pro­­cess of dividing up the deceased’s estate much more difficult. He is a member of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, and a Partner at Ward Gethin Archer Solicitors, in King’s Lynn, Norfolk.

Where there is no will, a grant of letters of administration has to be applied for, to appoint appropriate people to act as the executors of the deceased’s estate. Until this is granted, little can be done, and no money can be taken out of the estate.

Funeral arrangements can also be difficult to settle, particularly where the family situation is complex.

“When people are clouded by grief, they can’t think straight,” Mr Pennington says. “The job of a legal professional is to say: What would the deceased have wanted? Where there might be a first family and a second spouse, who would legally have the right to make the decisions, it can get very messy.”

The Vicar of Towcester, the Revd Ben Phillips, says: “When there is an unexpected death, there is nearly always a lot of waiting around, and quite often there can be unclear circumstances, and the families are trying to deal with lots of difficult questions. Often, you are treading on eggshells most of the time. Choosing the music can be a very big thing for loved ones. I often have to say to families: ‘Check the words of this song again. Do you really want to sing that?’”

The Rector of the West Dartmoor Mission Community, Prebendary Nick Shutt, says that a more com­plex family life makes decisions for the bereaved more difficult. “I have had to do funerals where sides of family do not like each other, and the atmosphere has been very tense: you can cut the air with a knife.

“Often, there are cases where Dad has remarried, and wife number one turns up at the funeral, and children from the first marriage have felt excluded from funeral arrangements. I have had arguments over the ashes, and what should be done with them, and, in one case, we had to split the ashes between different parts of the family.”

But unexpected deaths, tragic as often they are, provide unexpected encounters, too, Mr Phillips says. “Often, I will meet families through the undertaker, but there was one time I met a lovely granny who had brought her grandchildren into church to light a candle. I happened to be there, and discovered their mum had died. It was the start of really getting to know the family.”

Those who die when older may have thought more about their funeral arrangements, which makes the task for the priest more straight­orward, he says. “Older people tend to have had more idea about what they want at their funeral, and, as a priest, you know where you are, and it’s easier — though people are getting much more choosy and definite about what they want these days.”

Prebendary Shutt warns that too much planning of funeral details can also lead to other difficulties. “Where people have had a lot of time to plan their funeral, perhaps when they know their illness is terminal, they can plan things to the nth degree. Yet if they haven’t spoken to a priest to work out what can be done, this can cause difficulties, too.”

The answer is, as with wills, to keep funeral arrangements straight­forward, he says.

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