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International Bereavement: Navigating the Legal Requirements Following a Death Abroad

The untimely and tragic death of Dr Michael Mosley on the Greek Island of Symi has highlighted the practical complexities involved when a UK citizen dies abroad. For those facing these unimaginably traumatic circumstances, an understanding of the immediate legal requirements can help in navigating the emotional turmoil and grief of losing a loved one.

Initial steps

It is the executor of the will who is responsible for liaising with the authorities, registering the death, the repatriation and the funeral.  If there is no will, then it is the person who is entitled to the estate on intestacy that is authorised to administer the estate and this includes dealing with the funeral.  This is the spouse, then children, then parents and the list continues to further family members. 

There are several immediate steps that must be undertaken following such a death. In the first instance it is advisable to contact the nearest British embassy or consulate as they can offer advice on the steps to be taken. They can also assist with any potential language barriers.

In addition, the relevant travel insurance company should be contacted as soon as possible. They will have their own requirements and it is essential to ensure those are complied with to make sure the costs of registering the death and repatriation will be covered. Depending on the policy, they may also be able to help with medical, legal, interpretation and translation fees.  If you are unsure if your loved one had insurance in place then check with their bank, credit card company or travel agent.  If there is no insurance in place then the costs will need to be paid for by someone else and they will need to reclaim this from the estate. 

Funeral wishes 

The deceased’s Will should be the first place to check whether there are any recorded wishes regarding burial or cremation. There may also be specific requests concerning the funeral arrangements. However, funeral wishes are not legally binding on the executors of the Will. The executors will need to ensure the arrangements are appropriate in the circumstances. 

Post Mortem

The local authority may carry out a post mortem to help identify the cause of death and to ensure there are no suspicious circumstances. 

The UK coroner may then wish to conduct their own inquest and may request a further post mortem if they are not satisfied with the post mortem already undertaken. 

If the UK coroner determines that an inquest is necessary, this will be arranged before the body can be released for cremation or burial, assuming the body has been repatriated (see below). 

If an inquest is not required, a ‘Certificate of No Liability’ must be obtained from the registrar of the subdistrict where the funeral is to be held. The funeral director can attend the registry office and obtain this documentation.

Registering the Death

The death must be registered in accordance with local laws in the country where the person has passed away. For example in Greece, the funeral director will arrange the registration. There are also associated time limits depending on the country. Deaths in Greece must usually be registered with the authorities within 30 days, compared with 5 days when a death occurs in the UK.

The death need not necessarily be formally registered in the UK. For some countries, Greece being one example, the local death certificate can usually be used in the UK for most purposes, including probate. Of course this certificate will need to be formally translated into English. 

Despite this, it is still an option to inform UK authorities. This can be done online, and the Overseas Registration Unit can assist. By registering the death in the UK, the record will be sent to the General Register Office within 12 months. A copy of the UK-style death certificate (Consular Death Registration Certificate) can be obtained from the General Register Office or from the British consulate in the country concerned. There are several countries where it is not possible to register the death with the UK authorities, including Canada, New Zealand and the Cayman Islands.

Repatriation of the Body

If the body is to be brought back to the UK for a local funeral (whether burial or cremation), a UK-based international funeral director (a list of these can be found on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office website and the travel insurance company may have their preferred provider) is required to advise on the necessary arrangements, including:

  • Informing the coroner in the country where the person died; 
  • Informing the coroner in England and Wales if the death was violent or unnatural; and
  • Organising repatriation.

They will also liaise with a local funeral director to ensure the following documents are prepared:

  • Certified English translation of the foreign death certificate; 
  • Certificate giving permission to transfer the remains to the UK; and
  • Certificate of embalming.

The documents are prepared by a coroner, or equivalent authority, in the country of death. Alternatively, the British consulate can assist with obtaining the necessary documentation. 

A UK-based coroner must be informed if the death was violent or unnatural. In such circumstances, an inquest may be held, which can delay to the repatriation process. 

Returning of Ashes

An alternative to repatriation is for cremation to take place abroad. In order to bring the ashes back to the UK the following are required:

  • Death certificate;
  • Certificate of cremation; and
  • Adherence to specific rules, for example, filling out a customs form on arrival in the UK and informing the airline, which may have their own stipulations.

How we can help 

Our legal advisors in our estate planning and administration teams can assist you in the administration of a loved ones estate and can guide you through the legal complexities if they have died overseas