Who owns my body?

The disposal of a deceased person’s body can be a very emotive issue and it is relatively common for surviving family members to disagree about arrangements. Indeed a renowned recent example was the argument about where Nelson Mandela should be buried.

So who owns a body? The short answer to that is no-one as legally there is no property in a corpse. However, the primary entitlement to possess a corpse in order to dispose of it falls on the deceased person’s executors. This means that the people you appoint in your Will to administer your estate will not only be responsible for closing your bank accounts but also for arranging your funeral. Legally, the executors take precedence over your immediate family, although in practice if a deceased person leaves relatives who wish to arrange the funeral, then any professional executor appointed will be happy for the family to do so. The legal position is therefore quite clear if there is a valid Will which appoints executors. But what if there is no Will or it is invalid?

If there is no valid Will then the administrators of the estate are entitled to dispose of the body. The identity of the administrators is decided by rules which class people according to their relationship to the deceased. For example, if someone dies without a Will, and with no surviving spouse or civil partner, but leaves children then those children will be equally entitled to act as administrators .If they have different views as to how the body is to be disposed of, unsurprisingly, problems can arise.

This was the position in a recent High Court case. Mr George Carty died leaving a Will, the validity of which was disputed. Mr Carty had three daughters, two of whom wished for his body to be buried in Jamaica, where he was born and where his mother was buried, whilst the third daughter, and his niece, wanted his body to be buried in the UK where he had lived and worked for many years.

The dispute ended up in the High Court and the judge decided that Mr Carty should be buried in Jamaica. In reaching this decision the judge considered Mr Carty’s wishes as expressed verbally to a friend and in writing in his disputed Will. He took into account the reasonable requirements and wishes of the family and the place with which Mr Carty was most connected. He also considered that Mr Carty’s body should be disposed of with proper respect and decency and without further delay.

Could the situation in which Mr Carty’s family (and indeed Nelson Mandela’s family) found themselves be avoided? Perhaps most importantly you should discuss your wishes with your family and make sure everyone is clear as to what you want. If necessary record your wishes in writing, whether in your Will or elsewhere, such as in a letter to your family. There any many good reasons to make a Will and these include appointing executors who you think will not disagree about your funeral arrangements and who will carry your wishes into effect. If all these precautions are taken then the chances of a dispute are much reduced, and the money that might otherwise be spent on legal fees resolving an argument can be used to give you the send off you deserve.