Next of Kin: All You Need to Know

What does next of kin mean in hospital, when someone dies, or if they didn’t leave a will?

Last updated: 18 July 2019

It’s usually the next of kin that is with someone in hospital when they die and makes their funeral arrangements. But what does ‘next of kin’ actually mean and, who has the ultimate say, or, responsibility when someone dies?

What does next of kin mean?

Next of kin generally refers to the person who has, or had, the closest relationship with a person who’s in hospital, or who has died. In the United States, next of kin relationships are established in law – with a surviving spouse at the top of the list – but there’s no next of kin status defined in UK law, so this can be open to interpretation.

Generally, this is something that families work out between themselves, but at a highly emotional time when someone has died, identifying next of kin status may sometimes be complicated by family ties and relationships.

There are a number of things you can do, if you’d like to feel sure the person or people you consider to be next of kin, will be there for you when you die.

This is something that you may also want to think about talking over with a loved one, at any stage of your – or their – life.

How does the NHS identify next of kin?

Next of kin on a hospital form means the person nominated by the patient, or identified as the person who is closest to them.

If someone is well enough to identify their own next of kin on the hospital admission form, this can be anyone they choose. It could be a partner or close friend and not necessarily their closest blood relative.

If someone is unconscious or unable to respond, the hospital may define next of kin on the basis of the family members they are able to trace at the time.

What are the next of kin’s rights at hospital?

Next of kin are the people who are kept directly informed of a loved one’s treatment. They can’t generally make decisions over a loved one’s treatment in a hospital or hospice – this is between medical staff and the patient and, if the patient is unable to communicate, a clinical matter.

The NHS has a free-to-download Next of Kin Card, which you can fill in and carry with you. You can provide details of the person who you’d wish to be contacted if you were admitted to, or died in hospital.

The person identified as your next of kin will be informed about your care, consulted over organ and tissue donorship and about any post-mortem necessary, as well as making the arrangements for you to be taken into a funeral director’s care.

If you are concerned about decisions that may be made towards the end of your life, you may wish to nominate a member of your next of kin to be involved in decisions over your medical care, in a legal document known as a Lasting Power of Attorney.

You can also ensure that you receive – or do not receive – certain life prolonging treatments in hospital, by making a living will, also known as an advanced care plan. This legally binding document will ensure hospital or hospice staff aware aware of your treatment wishes, if you become unable to communicate them.

Alternatively, you could think about writing an advance statement, which, although is not legally binding, could inform and reassure your next of kin about your end of life wishes.

Who is next of kin when someone dies?

Although next of kin are not identified in UK law, it’s usually a spouse or life partner, parent, child, or other close relative that makes the funeral arrangements when someone dies.

Anyone, though, can arrange a funeral for someone and this person takes responsibility for settling the bill – which may be covered by the money someone left in their estate.

If you – or the person who has died – has written a will, then it’s possible to detail exactly who you wish to carry out your funeral arrangements, as next of kin.

If you’ve not detailed this, then it’s down to the person named as the will’s executor will carry out the arrangements and also settle the bill from your estate. It’s usual for the person or people you consider to be next of kin, to be named as an executor.

If you anticipate that their may be family differences over who takes responsibility for your funeral, it’s worth considering writing a will, a funeral plan, or pre-paid funeral, to avoid difficulties at an emotional time.

Although not legally binding, making a list of funeral wishes – which could range from whether you’d prefer burial or cremation, to choosing your favourite songs, could also include details about the next of kin you’d like to be involved in your send off.

Do next of kin have to pay for the funeral?

It may have been many years since someone was in touch with their closest family when they are dying, or die.

When someone dies alone, or without family or friends to claim them, the hospital or local authority will begin the process of tracking down next of kin.

The aim is to identify and inform close family members of the person’s death, and if the person did not leave a will, to identify who will take responsibility for arranging the funeral.

A spouse – or spouse that the person was separated, but not divorced, from – children or parents, may be traced as next of kin.

In these circumstances, the next of kin may choose not to claim responsibility for the person who has died.

When a person is unclaimed by next of kin, the local authority that oversees the place where the person died, will arrange a public health funeral, sometimes also known as a pauper’s funeral, for them.

Facing funeral costs that were unexpected, can be difficult for families who are traced as next of kin in this way. In circumstances where families waive responsibility for making the funeral arrangements, they will still generally be advised about when the funeral will take place.

If it turns out that the person left property or savings, their funeral costs will be recovered from this estate.

Next of kin and inheritances

When someone writes a will before they die, they can leave their money, and assets to whoever they like.

But when someone dies without writing a will – known as dying intestate – there are is a defined order of next of kin relationships that determine how the estate will be received, or shared out.

Spouses and civil partners are defined as next of kin when someone dies intestate. This included if a couple was living apart, but not legally separated. Spouses and civil partners will inherit all of the person’s personal belongings, the first £250,000 of their estate – and a half share of any further wealth in the estate.

Children and grandchildren follow the order of precedence in terms of next of kin when someone dies intestate, followed by other blood relatives.

Surviving long-term life partners, who not married or a civil partnership, are not recognised as next of kin – and can’t inherit under the rules of intestacy. Nor, too, can in-laws.