The recent death in London of Filipino congressman Ignacio Arroyo sparked a legal battle in the Courts here between his estranged wife and his co-habiting partner over who was entitled to take possession of his body and arrange his funeral.

Background

The deceased had left a Will in California appointing his daughter (Bernadina) as his executrix. He had also signed an advance healthcare directive authorising his partner since 2006 (Ms Ibuna) to organise his funeral. However, despite their separation in 2005, his wife (Mrs Arroyo), arrived in the UK and sought to take possession of his body.  Bernadina and Ms Ibuna started legal proceedings in the High Court for the legal authority to arrange the funeral in accordance with deceased's wishes.

Under English law there is no right of ownership in a dead body, though the deceased's personal representatives have a duty to dispose of the body.  On the facts of this case, the Court decided to issue a joint grant of representation to Bernadina and Ms Ibuna, allowing them to organise the funeral.

The Court accepted Bernadina's right to a grant because of her appointment as executrix of the Californian Will.  In Ms Ibuna's case, the Court took into consideration that under Philippine law the deceased's wishes about his funeral take precedence over those of his widow and any rights she had as his surviving spouse.  The healthcare directive in favour of Ms Ibuna and evidence from the family satisfied the Court that the deceased had wanted Ms Ibuna to deal with his funeral arrangements.  

Interestingly, the judge noted that by contrast under English law, whilst personal representatives can take into consideration the deceased's wishes over funeral arrangements, they are not bound by them.  The outcome could therefore have been different had Mr Arroyo been domiciled in England and Wales rather than the Philippines.

Comment

This case emphasises the importance of individuals making their funeral wishes known to their family.  Whilst for those domiciled in England and Wales these wishes won't be legally binding, it would be hoped that the family and personal representatives would take them into account to avoid any arguments over the funeral.

More importantly, this case highlights how essential it is that Wills are made and kept up to date. They should be reviewed following any significant changes in personal circumstances, such as separation or divorce, and it is important to remember that marriage revokes a Will.

The more complicated the family circumstances, the more sensible it is that a Will is in place to prevent arguments arising after death.  In particular, unmarried partners have limited rights on death and would not normally be appointed as a personal representative unless named as an executor under the Will.  This can mean that an unmarried partner has no legal authority to make the important decisions that need to be made after someone has died. These problems can be avoided by making a Will.