Funeral Disputes

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Funeral Disputes

If you are having to deal with a legal dispute relating to funeral arrangements, JMW can help you. We understand that dealing with the death of a loved one is an inherently emotional time, complicated by the need to make arrangements that respect the deceased's wishes while balancing the needs and feelings of all surviving family members. Funeral disputes can significantly compound this stress.

Various disagreements can arise in the immediate aftermath of a loved one's passing, from disagreements over who has the right to make funeral arrangements, to the division of the deceased's ashes. At JMW, we understand the sensitive nature of these disputes and provide compassionate, expert legal support to navigate these challenging times.

If you are dealing with a funeral dispute, get in touch with JMW today. Call 0345 872 6666, or fill in our online enquiry form to request a call back, and we will be able to help you find a smooth resolution to any legal issues that you are facing.

How We Can Help

At JMW, we specialise in resolving funeral disputes with empathy and legal expertise. Whether disputes arise over the burial, cremation, or the final resting place of the deceased’s ashes, our team offers comprehensive support. We guide surviving spouses, civil partners, unmarried partners and other family members through the legal landscape of disputes regarding funeral arrangements.

Our services include:

  • Applying for injunctive relief to stop a funeral taking place
  • Mediation and negotiation to resolve funeral disputes
  • Resolution of grave ownership disputes
  • Guidance and support for disputes over the deceased's ashes
  • Assistance in blended family disputes
  • Legal representation in court for unresolved funeral disputes
  • Providing legal advice on funeral law, including rights and responsibilities

Our aim is always to make reasonable attempts to resolve disputes amicably, respecting the emotional circumstances of all parties involved, while respecting and upholding the wishes of the deceased person.

JMW's Will Disputes team is one of the most respected in the country, and we have received significant recognition from our industry peers to demonstrate this. Several members of our team are members of the prestigious Association of Contentious Trusts and Estate Practitioners (ACTAPS), and we are also regularly recognised by the Legal 500 for our successes and services to clients.

As such, choosing JMW for your legal representation in funeral disputes means selecting a firm that prioritises sensitivity, confidentiality and expert legal guidance. Our solicitors are experienced in handling these delicate matters with the care and respect they deserve, addressing any familial tensions with empathy and professionalism.

What are the key causes of funeral disputes?

Funeral disputes often emerge from a complex mix of emotional and legal factors, primarily revolving around the final arrangements for the deceased. These disputes can significantly impact the surviving spouse, close family and other family members, creating a challenging dynamic during an already emotional time.

A funeral dispute might arise due to any of the following factors:

  • Ambiguity over the deceased’s wishes: when the deceased person has not left clear, written instructions regarding their funeral arrangements or the handling of their body and ashes, it can lead to misunderstandings and disputes among family members. This lack of clarity about the deceased's wishes can result in differing interpretations of what they would have wanted and surviving family members may find themselves at odds, each believing they understand the true wishes of the deceased.
  • Religious or cultural disputes: where the deceased practised a religion or faith, their spiritual background may make certain actions, such as cremation, inappropriate. Attempts to dispose of the body in a way that is not in accordance with the deceased’s religious beliefs will often lead to intervention with their funeral arrangements. 
  • Physical possession and legal right disputes: the legal right to control the funeral arrangements and the disposition of the deceased's body can become a significant issue, especially when the person entitled to make these decisions has not been clearly identified. Where more than one person is entitled to take possession of the deceased’s body, which can happen where there is more than one named executor or there are several people who fall within a class of family member e.g. where they leave no will but multiple surviving children, deciding who has the right to take physical possession of the deceased’s body and make decisions regarding funeral arrangements can lead to disputes.
  • Disagreements over the deceased's ashes: family disputes over ashes can occur when family members disagree on how the ashes should be distributed, stored or scattered. The emotional significance of ashes can lead to intense disputes, particularly when there is no explicit guidance from the deceased as to who they want to retain them.
  • Funeral location and funeral service arrangements: disagreements may also arise regarding the funeral’s location, whether the deceased should be buried or cremated, and the nature of the funeral service itself. Each of these elements can be a point of contention among family members, especially when cultural, religious or personal preferences differ. 
  • Second or blended families: in families with step-relatives or half-siblings, disputes can become particularly complex. The rights and wishes of biological family members might clash with those of stepfamilies or second spouses, leading to disputes that are as much about family dynamics as they are about the funeral itself.

What is the law surrounding funeral arrangements and funeral instructions?

The legal framework surrounding funeral arrangements and instructions is designed to respect the deceased's wishes while balancing the legal rights and responsibilities of the surviving family members. Understanding this legal landscape is vital when navigating the complexities that can arise when a loved one passes away.

The wishes of the deceased regarding their funeral arrangements are not deemed legally binding in the same way as provisions in a will relating to property or assets would be. However, the deceased’s expressed preferences - whether communicated through a will, a funeral plan or another form of written instruction - will usually be taken into account.

The deceased's executors named in the will are responsible for deciding on funeral arrangements. If there is no will, the responsibility to dispose of the body will fall to the person or people entitled to administer their estate under the intestacy rules. This will be their spouse or nearest blood relative (referred to herein as ‘next of kin’).

It is also important to note that nobody owns the deceased's remains, from a legal perspective. However, the person entitled to take possession of the body (the executor, spouse or next of kin) has the responsibility to dispose of it correctly through burial or cremation. This right of possession comes with the duty to consider any known wishes of the deceased but, because those wishes are not binding, the executor, spouse or next of kin may decide not to follow those wishes. This could be for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to:

  1. The legality of complying with their wishes;
  2. The person arranging the funeral disagreeing with the deceased’s wishes;
  3. Whether it is practical to comply with their wishes; and
  4. Cost

At JMW, we provide the necessary legal advice and support to help you understand and navigate these legal complications, making sure that the arrangements for your loved one are handled the right way.

What is the order of priority concerning funeral arrangements?

The order of priority for funeral arrangements is determined by a combination of legal guidelines and the deceased's personal circumstances:

  1. Named executor: the named executor in the deceased’s will has first priority when determining funeral arrangements. This individual has the legal responsibility to carry out the deceased's wishes, including decisions regarding burial or cremation. If the deceased has left clear instructions within a will, there would be an expectation, despite their non-binding nature, that the executor will ordinarily seek to ensure that these instructions are followed.
  2. Spouse or next of kin: in the absence of a will or a named executor, the responsibility to dispose of the body falls to the spouse or next of kin. This follows a recognised order:
  3. Other family members: if the spouse or next of kin is unavailable, unwilling or unable to act, other blood relatives of the deceased's family may assume responsibility for the funeral arrangements. Where the deceased is part of a blended family, step-children are not recognised for the purpose of disposing of the deceased’s body. Step-family members who wish to make the arrangements for the deceased’s funeral would need a court application to obtain responsibility for funeral arrangements. 
  4. Local authority or cremation authority: in situations where there are no available family members, or when disputes cannot be resolved, the local authority in the area where the person died may step in to arrange the burial or cremation. This is a situation of last resort and typically occurs when there is no one else willing to take on the responsibility.

If there is a significant dispute among family members regarding funeral rights and arrangements, the matter may be brought before a court. The court will consider the deceased's known wishes, the relationships of the parties involved, and any other relevant factors before making a final decision on who should have the right to decide the arrangements.

How can funeral disputes be resolved?

Resolving funeral disputes requires a sensitive approach, focusing on communication, legal guidance and sometimes mediation or legal intervention. The options include:

  • Open communication: encouraging open and honest dialogue among all parties involved is the first step. A clear discussion can often lead to a mutual understanding and resolution that respects the deceased's wishes and addresses family members' needs.
  • Mediation: if direct communication does not resolve the dispute, mediation by a neutral third party can help. Mediation allows all parties to express their views in a controlled environment, aiming for a solution that acknowledges everyone's perspectives and the deceased's likely intentions.
  • Legal advice: obtaining legal advice from solicitors experienced in funeral disputes, like JMW, can clarify the legal rights and responsibilities of each party. This can inform discussions and lead to a resolution grounded in legal principles.
  • Written agreements: once a resolution is reached, it is advisable to document the agreement in writing. This prevents misunderstandings and provides a clear reference if disputes re-emerge later.
  • Court proceedings: as a last resort, unresolved disputes may need to be settled in court. Here, a judge will consider the deceased's wishes, the family members' relationships and arguments, and legal precedents before making a binding decision.

By utilising these methods, parties involved in funeral disputes can find a resolution that respects the deceased’s wishes while minimising additional stress during a difficult time. JMW is committed to providing the necessary legal support and advice to navigate these disputes compassionately and effectively.

FAQs about funeral disputes

If there is more than one executor named in the will, who is responsible for organising the funeral?

When a will names multiple executors, all of them have equal legal status and share the responsibility for organising the funeral. This means the executors should communicate and collaborate to reach a consensus on the funeral arrangements, including decisions regarding the burial or cremation, the funeral service, and the handling of the deceased's ashes.

If the executors disagree on the funeral arrangements, they should first attempt to resolve their differences through discussion and compromise. If the executors still cannot agree, and if the will does not specify how disputes should be resolved, it may be necessary for executors to explore the various dispute resolution processes available to them, including mediation, seeking legal advice or taking the matter to court.

How quickly must a funeral dispute be raised?

It is important to obtain advice urgently in funeral disputes due to the time-sensitive nature of funeral arrangements and the legal processes involved in handling the deceased's body and estate. Ideally, any concerns or disagreements should be communicated immediately upon becoming aware of the potential for dispute, or as soon as the contentious issues arise.

Arrangements for funerals usually take place very shortly after the deceased’s death. If legal action is required, then it needs to be taken quickly. If a funeral has already taken place, a court may be reluctant to order an exhumation of the deceased’s body and, if the party making the funeral arrangements intends that the body be cremated, there will usually need to be immediate court intervention to ensure this does not take place, and that the body is preserved.

Early communication can often prevent misunderstandings and may lead to a quicker resolution. It will also provide enough time for any necessary legal processes to be completed, without causing undue delays to the funeral itself.

To whom will the coroner release the body if there is a disagreement about funeral disputes?

In normal circumstances, the coroner will release the body to the person, or one of the people, who is legally entitled to take possession of it; either a named executor or the spouse or next of kin in the absence of a named executor or will.

However, if there is a known dispute among family members or between the executors about who should take possession of the body or how the funeral should be conducted, the coroner's office may seek to ensure that the body is released to the person who has the legal right and intention to arrange the funeral. They may require evidence of this entitlement, and the intentions regarding the funeral arrangements.

In these cases, the disputing parties may need to seek legal advice to resolve the disagreement before they can take possession of the body and proceed with the funeral arrangements.

How binding is the deceased’s request for the executors to follow their wishes for their funeral?

Under UK law, the wishes of the deceased regarding their funeral are not legally binding on the executors, spouse or next of kin. While morally and ethically significant, these wishes are considered preferences, rather than enforceable demands.

Executors and family members will generally be expected to respect and follow the deceased's wishes for their funeral as a matter of respect, but are not bound to do so, especially if they are considered to be impractical or financially burdensome, or if there is significant disagreement among family members.

The likelihood of the deceased’s funeral wishes being followed increases if they are clearly documented; for example, in a will, a prepaid funeral plan, or another form of written instruction. However, the executor, spouse or next of kin will always have the discretion to decide how best to put this in place.

I am the deceased’s unmarried partner. What rights do I have to organise the funeral?

Unless they have been named as an executor in the deceased’s will, an unmarried partner has no legal standing to take possession of the deceased’s body or carry out their funeral arrangements. That responsibility will fall on the executors of the will, spouse (if there is one, even if they are separated) or next of kin. However, those in control of the funeral arrangements may take account of the views of the unmarried partner, who may have information about what the deceased wanted to happen regarding their funeral arrangements. 

It is possible to make an application to the court to ask the court to use its discretion to make an order allowing an unmarried partner to take conduct of the funeral arrangements.

The validity of the deceased’s will is being disputed. Who has the right to make arrangements for the funeral? Is it the executor, spouse or nearest blood relative?

Provided the will appears on its face to be validly executed, the starting point would still be that the executor under the disputed will would have the right to take possession of the body for disposal and make the funeral arrangements, the court not having actually ruled upon the validity of the disputed will.

Therefore, unless the interested parties can agree a resolution between them, an application would need to be made to court by the executor under a previous will - or the spouse or next of kin if there is no previous will - highlighting that the validity of that will is in dispute. This allows them to seek control of the funeral arrangements.

If the body is cremated, can ashes be shared out?

The distribution of ashes following cremation is not governed by strict legal rules, allowing for a degree of flexibility based on the deceased's wishes and family preferences. This means that the ashes can be shared among family members, friends, unmarried partners or anyone else the deceased or the organising parties see fit.

If the deceased left clear instructions, these wishes will often guide the distribution of their ashes, although these instructions are not legally binding. If there is disagreement among the parties involved - for example, if some family members want to scatter the ashes in a particular place, while others want to keep them - the situation can become more complex. Technically, the executor, spouse or next of kin will legally have the final say in the decision, but they are unlikely to take this decision without considering the views and feelings of all relevant parties.

When disagreements arise about the distribution of ashes and a compromise cannot be reached through discussion, you should seek legal advice promptly to resolve the dispute as smoothly as possible.

Talk to Us

If you are experiencing a funeral dispute and require legal advice or assistance, please contact JMW today. Our team of compassionate legal professionals is ready to provide you with the support and guidance you need during this difficult time.

For further information or to arrange a consultation, please call us on 0345 872 6666, or fill in our online enquiry form to request a call back.