(1) It shall be the duty of a local authority to cause to be buried or cremated the body of any person who has died or been found dead in their area, in any case where it appears to the authority that no suitable arrangements for the disposal of the body have been or are being made otherwise than by the authority.

With regards to a local authorities statutory duty under section 46 of the Public Health Act 1984 (England and Wales), there is no official guidance from the government on what the specific duties are for providing a funeral for someone who has died and has no known next of kin, or no one willing to undertake the arrangements.

Practice varies across the country. Some authorities will only provide a funeral that is straight to burial/cremation meaning that there is no form of service. Others will provide a minister/celebrant and service for the deceased. Some will dictate the time and place of a service whilst others won’t.

There is no national criteria for provision.

Most local authorities will receive a referral via one of these:

  • coroner’s office
  • police
  • local hospital
  • care home
  • GP

The authority may decide that it wishes to make use of free services offered by genealogists to trace any next of kin before moving forwards.

By doing this, the authority minimises the risk of family not being traced and opens up the possibility that the arrangements can be passed on, thus sparing cost to the authority and time spent in registering a death and arranging a funeral.

No, a local authority does not have to search a property, but it may be necessary for the authority to carry out a search to ensure that property is protected. Hospitals report that they have no legal powers to enter a property and will ask colleagues in a local authority to carry out a search.

If a search is to be carried out, the best practice would be for at least two people to visit said property and undertake a search, keeping in the same area to ensure that probity is maintained. A record of all items removed should be signed by all parties undertaking a search; ideally if cash is found in a property, it should be counted on the premises then removed to secure facilities before it can then be banked.

Practice again varies from area to area. Some authorities will remove personal items to safety, others will leave them behind. Ultimately the authority should consider the implications of disposing of property should no next of kin have been searched for, in case any precious family articles are lost.

If the property is rented it may be in the best interests of the estate to terminate a tenancy to ensure that a rent debt does not build up.

Advice from the Government Legal Department is that they would not object to this being done, as it is in the best interests of the estate. However, furniture and effects will need to be disposed of to the best advantage of the estate and personal papers and assets are retained.

Many local authorities simply do not have the means to store items and dispose of assets which is why our advice is that it would be better to search for next of kin prior to any action being taken. Once next of kin have been found and administrators are appointed, the risk passes from the council to the person(s) managing the estate.

Further assistance and advice on clearing properties can be found by speaking to a company such as Just Clear.

Authorities are often approached by families for financial help. The only state aid for funerals is provided by the Department for Works and Pensions and individuals have to be in receipt of (or have recently claimed) the following benefits:

  • Income Support
  • income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Pension Credit
  • Housing Benefit
  • the disability or severe disability element of Working Tax Credit
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit

The DWP advises that the payment may not cover the full cost of a funeral and that any monies held by the deceased should be used first to make any payment.

Our advice would be for the individuals to seek advice from their local citizen’s advice bureau or to shop around local funeral directors, as prices can vary, and seek the best deal.

If an authority believes that there are no known next of kin and that there is no estate, they can apply to Finders International for a payment from the unique Finders International Funeral Fund. The FIFF will pay all or part of the costs should Finders confirm that there is no next of kin and that the estate has no funds.

To apply, the local authority should contact Finders International via their website:

http://www.findersinternational.co.uk/our-services/public-sector-services/funeral-fund/

If taking the responsibility of arranging the funeral, the authority should arrange to register the death as soon as possible. It may not be possible for a death to be registered if there is to be an inquest. If the coroner’s office has released a body then there should be a pink certificate waiting at the registrars department, otherwise a medical death certificate will need to be obtained from the doctor attending the deceased at the time of death.

A council officer giving details should ensure that they have all possible information to prevent any changes needing to be made at a later date. Changes can be extremely difficult to make.

Information needed will be:

  • full name
  • maiden name (if female and married)
  • date of birth
  • place of birth
  • occupation
  • details of spouse if they pre-deceased

The easiest way of confirming these details prior to registration would be to use a free service provided by a genealogist, such as Finders.

The officer will need to register the death as an informant with one of the following:

  • causing the disposal of the body
  • causing the body to be buried
  • causing the body to be cremated

For further details and guidance on registering a death you should visit the government website.

The local authority will need to be aware of any wishes that the deceased may have had. Section 46 part 3 of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 specifically states that:

(3) An authority shall not cause a body to be cremated under subsection (1) or (2) above where they have reason to believe that cremation would be contrary to the wishes of the deceased.

If it is clear that the deceased’s religion specifically allows for burial then the authority must follow that course of action.

A local authority will no doubt only bury a deceased person into a common/parish grave, meaning that the grave can be used for multiple burials. These graves are almost certainly cheaper and will not allow for a headstone, and sometimes not even a marker.

There is no guidance on what should be provided. Some authorities will only provide a bare minimum service with no celebrant/religious input. Others will allow for a service to take place. It is down to each authority to decide what they wish to provide.

By using the services of a genealogy company, such as Finders, it may be possible to trace next of kin quickly and pass on the responsibility of arranging a funeral, thus saving the authority staffing costs.

Different religions have specific protocols and procedures that should be adhered to where possible.

Under Section 46 Part 3 of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 it states that “An authority shall not cause a body to be cremated under subsection (1) or (2) above where they have reason to believe that cremation would be contrary to the wishes of the deceased”.

Local authorities will need to take note of this when they are arranging a funeral, and pay due respect to any religious beliefs of the deceased and their community.

The current advice on the government’s website states that the BVD:

“Does not deal with estates where…there are known or likely to be entitled relatives who have survived the deceased”

Local authorities report that when they refer cases to the BVD they will receive numerous requests for information which often takes up valuable time. They also report that when the BVD contacts them to inform them that next of kin have been traced they are not given any details of who they are.

This can result in lengthy delays for the local authority in closing down cases.

Given that, on average, just 1% of cases referred to local authorities result in no next of kin being traced the BVD will not be interested in the case.

By doing due diligence and using a genealogy service, such as the one provided free by Finders International, any case that a local authority sends to the BVD will result in the BVD managing it.

The Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 specifically states that:

(5) An authority may recover from the estate of the deceased person expenses incurred…

This should cover the following:

  • time spent registering a death,
  • making phone calls,
  • undertaking a search of property,
  • time spent travelling,
  • time spent arranging a funeral,
  • general administration costs.

A reasonable minimal figure that local authorities should expect to charge an estate is at least £350.00. That may be more due to distances covered and additional time spent at properties. Best practice would be to record time spent by officers, and base cost on their hourly staffing cost to the authority.

Sec 34(3) of the Administration of Estates Act 1925 states that:

Where the estate of a deceased person is solvent his real and personal estate shall, subject to rules of court and the provisions hereinafter contained as to charges on property of the deceased, and to the provisions, if any, contained in his will, be applicable towards the discharge of the funeral, testamentary and administration expenses, debts and liabilities payable thereout in the order mentioned in Part II of the First Schedule to this Act. 

Therefore, the first debt on a person’s estate is that of the funeral and takes priority over any other debt.

The BVD website does not specifically advise on what should be provided by a local authority undertaking their statutory duties. Common practice amongst local authorities is usually to provide a basic funeral and service. Some authorities will specify what time and where the funeral will be held. Others will take into account the opinions of others, such as friends, and follow their wishes if applicable.

The BVD does point out that the service provided should not include the cost of floral tributes, a headstone, book of remembrance, entrance or payment for a wake. If these are provided they can be claimed back from any administrator at a later date should they be in agreement to pay the costs.

If the deceased had an account with a bank/building society, the authority should present a copy of the funeral invoice, a receipt for payment and a copy of the death certificate to them. Monies should then be released directly to the local authority by the bank.

If the funeral bill has not been paid, the bank can issue payment directly to the funeral director.

Advice from the British Banking Association is that a bank will usually consider requests to release funds before probate or letters of administration are obtained.