Next of kin - The legal meaning explained

In the UK, there is no specific legal definition to define the meaning of ‘next-of-kin’ (sometimes referred to as ‘next to kin’) and to explain exactly who it should be. The Cambridge Dictionary, however, defines it as the following:

“The person or group of people you are most closely related to.”

There is no law in the UK that determines exactly who you should name as your next of kin, but there are important factors and rules to consider when it comes to choosing someone to take responsibility for you, your funeral and your estate legally when you die.

In this guide, we explain the meaning of next of kin when someone is in hospital, when someone dies and if no will has been written, as well as the next of kin’s rights and responsibilities.

  

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What is next of kin? Who is your next of kin legally in the UK?

In the UK, a next of kin is used to refer to a relative (or relatives) who you have the closest relationship with.

As there are no clear legal rules, however, a next of kin doesn’t necessarily have to be a blood relative. While this is most often the case, it could also be a partner or a close friend, particularly if you are in hospital and need to name a next of kin and provide their details to medical staff.

Other times where you may need to give next of kin details may be if you are taking part in a high-risk activity such as skydiving, or you may need to inform your employer or doctor surgery just in case something were to happen to you and they needed someone to contact (in addition to phoning the police or ambulance, if necessary).

In hospital

If you are in hospital, you will be asked to provide the details of your next of kin on a hospital form, providing you are well enough and capable of doing so. This is usually the person who you have the closest relationship with, but it can be anyone you wish.

The reason that the NHS needs to ask you for next of kin details is so that in the event something should happen to you while in hospital, if you need treatment or if you should pass away, this is the person they will contact to explain the situation and discuss funeral arrangements or medical decisions such as organ donations.

If you are unconscious while in hospital or too unwell to talk and provide details, the hospital will take it upon themselves to name your next of kin, depending on which family members and friends they can track down and get in touch with (such as your partner, spouse, parent or child over 18).

The NHS provides a free Next of Kin Card online, where you can fill in their details and keep with you. The next of kin you name on here is the person who you want to be contacted by NHS medical staff in the event that you are admitted to hospital or you pass away in hospital.

Children under 18

Should anything happen to a child under the age of 18-years-old, their next of kin would be the person (or people) who has the legal right to take care of them and make decisions for them.

This person is usually their parent(s), but if there are no parents, the child’s next of kin would be their legal guardian - an individual who has been given legal authority to take care of them and make decisions on their behalf. 

A legal guardian can be appointed in a will document and gives parents the reassurance that their children will be cared for in the event that something should happen to them.

Learn more: Appointing Guardianship

If there is no close family

If someone dies without a will (also known as dying intestate) and has no traceable next of kin, close relative or friend, their unclaimed estate will be passed onto the government and a public health funeral (or pauper’s funeral) will be arranged by the local council where the person died. 

Your estate consists of your assets, such as your money, property, any businesses, etc. and any funeral costs will be taken from this if there is no will or close family members or friends.

 

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What if someone is unable to name a next of kin?

In most cases where a person is unable to name a next of kin, perhaps because they are too unwell in hospital for example, their family members will usually step in and discuss the matter with each other, but it is important to consider that this could cause disputes between loved ones due to potential complexities, particularly at an upsetting time.

To prevent this from happening, you may wish to speak with your loved ones about your chosen next of kin while you’re still alive, so that everyone knows where they stand and there won’t be any arguments when you pass away.

If you have certain wishes and you want to make sure that they are carried out when you pass away, or you want to make sure that someone will be there for you when you die and to help arrange your funeral, the best way to do so is to declare it all in a legally-binding will.

Learn more: Talking to Your Family About Your Will

Who is the next of kin when someone dies? - Order of priority UK

As we have mentioned, there are no set laws in place that establish a legal order of next of kin in the UK. 

Having said this, here is an order of priority which is generally followed by most people unless stated otherwise (in a will, for example). Remember though, you do not have to adhere to this yourself; you can choose whoever you deem to be your closest family member or friend as your next of kin to take responsibility for you when you pass away.

1. A spouse or civil partner - Who is my next of kin if I am married or separated?

Generally, if the deceased person was married or in a civil partnership when they passed away, the spouse or civil partner is usually thought of as their next of kin, which is still the case if you are separated. 

In the event of a separation, it is important to note that the spouse might decide not to claim the responsibility of being next of kin. If you are divorced, however, your ex-wife, ex-husband or ex-civil partner cannot be considered as your legal next of kin.

To avoid any issues such as the above, we highly recommend writing a will, particularly at times of significant change in your life, like a separation, divorce or a birth.

2. Children

If the deceased person’s spouse or civil partner passed away before them, their next of kin would be their children, if they had any. If the children are younger than 18, they cannot be named as next of kin - in this case, their parents would be given the responsibility.

3. Parents

If there is no surviving spouse, civil partner or children over the age of 18, the deceased person’s parents will then usually be their next to kin.

4. Siblings - brothers and sisters

In the event that the deceased person passed away with no spouse, civil partner, children or parents then their siblings are considered to be the next of kin.

Remember that the above next of kin order is not legally established in the UK, unlike in the United States where the order of priority is officially set out by American law.

While you are free to choose whoever you deem to have the closest relationship with to be your next of kin, a lot of people generally follow the above guidelines.

Next of kin rights and responsibilities

If someone is admitted to hospital, their named next of kin is responsible for the following duties:

  • They should be ready to be contacted at any time about any changes to the patient’s situation (health and treatment) and if other people need to know.
  • They will need to come to get the patient when any treatment has finished and they are ready to go home.
  • If the patient loses the mental capacity to make sensible decisions, the next of kin will need to do this on their behalf.

Is next of kin responsible for funeral costs?

Unless there is a will stating otherwise, it is usually the next of kin’s responsibility to make the funeral arrangements if the person they are responsible for passes away.

In the UK, the average cost of a funeral is over £4,000, but it may be more or less depending on the deceased’s preferences and location. So understandably, the next of kin or any other family members could be faced with sudden, unexpected funeral costs, unless the deceased person had a life insurance policy or set aside some cash in a will to cover the cost.

In cases where a next of kin or family don’t wish to arrange the funeral, it will be organised by the local council, and the family will be informed of the details. If they discover that the person died with an estate, such as a property and savings, then the funeral costs will be taken from this.

According to the NHS card, a next of kin does not have:

  • Any legal liabilities
  • A right to see or access your medical records
  • A right to any of your personal possessions

It also states that they do “not affect who will inherit from you if you die”, but this all depends on who your next of kin is and whether or not you have written a legally-valid will.

Read more: How to Make a Will at Home

Inheritance - What happens if there is no will?

If a person dies without having a will in place then their estate will be administered and shared out in line with the rules of intestacy in England and Wales, which may not always match the person’s true, personal wishes.

The intestacy rules in order of priority are as follows:

  • The surviving spouse or civil partner will inherit the initial £270,000 of the deceased’s estate. They will also receive half of anything else remaining after that.
  • The remaining half of the estate (after the first £270,000) will then be distributed equally between their children, unless there is no surviving spouse or civil partner - in this case, the children would receive all of the estate equally.
  • If one child passed away before the deceased, their children (the deceased’s grandchildren) would then be entitled to receive their parent’s share of the inheritance.

If the inheritance is unable to be shared with the above people, it will then go to the deceased’s parents, brothers and sisters, half brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles then cousins respectively.

 

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To learn more about dying intestate, read our useful guide: What Happens if You Die Intestate in the UK.

If you do not wish for your estate to be shared out as inheritance to certain people listed above or if you have specific wishes for when you are no longer here, the best way to ensure your requests are carried out is by writing a will.

Probate

If someone dies and they made a will, there will usually be a named executor in the will document whose duty it is to apply for probate, which gives them the legal right to administer the estate. This means that they can access the deceased’s finances, sell any property and distribute inheritance as stated in the will.

If there is no will, however, it is generally the next of kin’s responsibility to apply for probate, and this can be a very expensive process if no plans were put in in place beforehand.

At Wills.Services, we offer fixed probate fees to give you the peace of mind that your loved ones won’t be faced with high costs.

Read more: Applying for Probate

 

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Next of kin vs power of attorney

Does next of kin have power of attorney? This question is asked a lot, but these roles are not the same and it’s important to know the difference between the two.

If someone is in hospital, their next of kin does not have the legal right to make decisions on their behalf. However, if the patient becomes mentally incapable of making decisions regarding their treatment or care, the next of kin is usually contacted and expected to do this - unless the patient has set up a lasting power of attorney.

An LPA is a legal document which lets you state exactly who you would want to manage your financial affairs and any healthcare needs in the event that you should lose the mental capacity to do so yourself. This way, you get the peace of mind knowing that your affairs will be handled sensibly and in a way that you would want if anything should happen to you.

Learn more: Should I Get a Lasting Power of Attorney?

If you’re worried about the decisions that will be made when you pass away…

Your best option is to make a legally-binding will that clearly states your exact wishes for when the time comes.

You can start writing your will with Wills.Services today from the comfort of your own home and you can save it as you go along, so there’s no rush or pressure to get it done all in one go.

To get started, you’ll need to register with us by tapping the button below. If you’d like further protection for yourself and your loved ones, feel free to look at the other services we offer.

Wills

Make a will in three easy steps and protect your hard earned legacy.

Lasting Power of Attorney

If you are unable to manage your own affairs, an LPA (Lasting Power of Attorney) appoints someone of your choosing to do it for you.

Trusts

If you want to put some money aside for a specific reason, setting up a trust can help you do so in an orderly fashion.

Article reviewed 13th March 2021