When a person goes missing without trace, the fact that their assets are left in limbo often adds to the agony suffered by their loved ones. However, as a High Court ruling in a very sad case showed, such impasses can if necessary be broken by a judicial declaration of death.
The case concerned a teacher and keen outdoorsman in his 50s who never returned home from a walking holiday to Turkey. He told fellow guests at the hotel where he was staying that he was going for a hike to a tourist spot and was never seen again. Despite a missing person publicity campaign and five search parties, using army personnel, drones, helicopters and dogs, no trace of him had been found.
About four years after his disappearance, his sister and closest living relative applied to the Court under the Presumption of Death Act 2013. In the absence of official confirmation of his death, there could neither be closure for her and her family nor could his estate, which included a £350,000 property, be administered.
Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that there was no indication whatsoever that he was depressed or that there was anything wrong in his life. His sister had done all in her power to find him, travelling to Turkey twice, without any success. His passport and personal items were found in his hotel room, strongly indicating that he had not deliberately disappeared with a view to starting a new life. Calls to his mobile phone went to voicemail until the battery ran out.
It was surprising that no body had been found, but he was a responsible man and there was absolutely no evidence that he intended to disappear without telling his loving sister, her husband and their children. Everything suggested that he went out for a walk, intending to return to the hotel that evening.
The Court was satisfied that something happened on the day of his disappearance that caused his death. It was impossible to know whether he tripped and fell into a crevice on rough terrain or suffered a heart attack or stroke. The Court made a declaration that he died seven days after the date on which he went missing.