When a loved one passes away, there are a number of tasks that need to be considered and it can often be a daunting process knowing where to start. The introduction of The Coronavirus Act 2020 that came into force throughout the United Kingdom in March last year (where most provisions will remain in force for two years with regular reviews by Parliament) has simplified the process of death certification for medical professionals. However, other tasks within the process have experienced delays and ongoing restrictions which have contributed to making a difficult time even more stressful. This blog aims to set out the different stages that need to be considered when a loved one passes away and will explore how COVID-19 has impacted processes.
1. Obtaining a medical certificate
A medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD) is required in order to register the death of a loved one. If the death happened at the hospital, the staff will arrange for a doctor to issue an MCCD that will specify the time, date, and cause of death. If the death occurred at home or in a care/nursing home, a GP will usually issue the medical certificate.
According to Guidelines in Practice, in normal times, the doctor issuing the MCCD would need to have seen the patient in life. However, it was recognised during the pandemic that this may cause an unnecessary delay (if the doctor was unwell or was required to self-isolate due to illness in their family), therefore, it was amended so that any General Medical Council-registered doctor could sign the MCCD if the doctor who attended the patient in life was unable to sign themselves. Additionally, pre-pandemic, this could only be signed without referral to the Coroner if the patient had been seen within the last 14 days of life, which has been extended to 28 days.
2. Registering the death
Registering the death needs to be carried out before you can begin making any funeral arrangements. Before the pandemic, this would have needed to be completed in-person at a Register Office in the area where the person died, where normally, relatives of the deceased are required to register the death. If this isn’t the case, then someone present at the death may register it – whether that be a hospital representative or the person arranging the funeral, for example.
In addition to the death certificate, the Registrar will provide a certificate for burial or cremation (often referred to as the ‘green form’ that must be given to the Funeral Director before the funeral can take place) and a certificate of registration of death (often referred to as the ‘white form’ which will be given to you if the deceased was entitled to a state pension or benefits).
The Coronavirus Act 2020 changed the process around the registration of deaths which allowed registrars to take ‘remote’ registration by telephone or electronic means. Temporary changes have been made to Register Office services across the country concerning the retrieval of birth, death or marriage certificates. In Bristol, for example, certificates cannot be applied or collected at the Register Office in person and require applicants to apply online or through post by printing and filling in an application form. All certificates will then be posted.
GOV.UK states that unless the death has been referred to the Coroner, you have up to five days to register the death in England and Wales. In Scotland, a death must be registered with local registration districts within eight days. The timeframes for registering a death have remained the same and have not been amended throughout the pandemic.
3. When the Coroner is involved
In cases where a death is reported to the Coroner, all necessary papers will be issued by them once investigations are complete. If the cause of death remains uncertified or it’s determined that the death was not from natural causes, an inquest will be held. In these cases, the Coroner will issue an interim death certificate. It is not possible to carry out any preservative work for the funeral when this is taking place, therefore, it’s advisable not to book a definite date. If the post-mortem examination reveals that the death was due to natural causes and an inquest is not needed, the Coroner will release the body.
As previously stated by Guidelines in Practice, the MCCD window has been doubled from 14 to 28 days as part of the Coronavirus Act 2020. In the case that a person dies without having seen a doctor in the preceding 28 days, the MCCD can still be issued but the Coroner needs to be involved. The Coroner then fills in form 100A, who then sends both the MCCD and form 100A to the Registrar; this allows the death to be registered even though the deceased was not seen by a doctor within 28 days of death.
4. Arranging the funeral
The Deceased may have left a written record, told family and friends about their funeral wishes, or have a pre-paid funeral plan in place. Most families choose to hand arrangements over to a professional Funeral Director who will be able to offer advice and guidance.
Due to COVID-19, there have been restrictions on visiting funeral homes and it has been advised to follow the advice of Funeral Directors and local authorities. The NHS has made clear that you may not be able to see someone after they've died if it happened in a hospital or care home. You may be able to see them at a distance, but this will depend on the rules of the hospital or care home. It may be possible to do cultural or funeral rituals, such as washing, dressing, kissing, and holding the person's body, if you're wearing protective clothing and equipment under the supervision of someone who is trained in the appropriate use of PPE.
On 17th May, as part of the next stage of lockdown easing, the 30-person limit for mourners at funerals was lifted and guidance on GOV.UK was changed to “the number of attendees at a funeral will be determined by how many people the venue can safely accommodate with social distancing measures in place, including anyone working”.
5. Dealing with the Will
The next step that needs to be considered is finding out if the Deceased left a valid Will. This is particularly important when it comes to dealing with the Deceased’s affairs later on, as there are different legal requirements for administering an estate if there is no valid Will (also known as intestacy). We recently wrote a blog on the importance of having a Will which is highlighted through two interesting case studies, read it here.
If you cannot locate a Will, it’s advisable to conduct a Will search by approaching Will Writers and Solicitors in the local area where the deceased lived, as well as searching national Will Registers like Certainty Will Search.
Certainty Will Search has experienced an increase in the number of searches due to people either self-isolating or not wanting to enter the home of others to look for evidence of a Will. Additionally, there has been an increase in those wanting to locate a Will in advance of a funeral to understand if the Deceased’s Will contained funeral wishes. As a result of this, at the time of writing, Certainty’s wait times have been extended from 28 days to 60 days for a response should a Will that has not been registered on The National Will Register be located following a search. However, usual response times remain unaffected for a Will that is registered.
6. Locating important papers
At this stage, you should already have birth, marriage and death certificates. However, other important paperwork such as pension details, insurance policies and bank and building society accounts will be helpful at a later stage, particularly if you need to apply for the Grant of Probate (or confirmation in Scotland).
Locating these important documents may cause some delays, as financial institutions such as banks and building societies have reduced their branch opening hours due to the pandemic. Whilst some remain open with reduced opening hours and limited appointments to help those who need it the most, unfortunately, some bank branches have remained temporarily closed, which will cause restrictions for those that need to be physically present in a branch to retrieve documents. According to Love Money, some banks, such as HSBC, are still currently closed on weekends until further notice, whilst others, such as Lloyds and Nationwide, are only opening a selection of banks on weekends and vary their branch opening hours across the country.
7. Estate administration
Estate administration is the process of dealing with a person’s legal and tax affairs after they’ve died. This means dealing with all their assets (such as property, shares and personal possessions), paying debts, paying any Inheritance Tax and Income Tax (if payable) and transferring inheritance to the beneficiaries of the estate. Estate administration can be extremely complex and is required after every estate, whether or not there is a Will.
As the estate administration process involves working with other third-party institutions, this has impacted the standard timescales that were once suggested and has made the process considerably more challenging for those choosing the DIY approach. This has mainly been experienced due to the challenges faced by the Probate Registry, HMRC, DWP, Banks and Share Registrars with staff working from home and not having the same efficient processes in place as in an office environment.
Kings Court Trust is an award-winning probate and estate administration provider who can take care of the complicated practicalities after death. If you have any questions about probate or estate administration, call our experienced Client Services Team on 0300 303 9000.