Declaring a missing person legally dead

The High Court or a coroner can declare a person legally dead if they’ve gone missing.

When a coroner can declare a person legally dead

A coroner has the power to declare a person dead in cases where there was a major disaster or accident and a body can’t be found (as with the Pike River Mine disaster in 2010 or the February 2011 Canterbury earthquake) or where there is strong evidence that the person is dead due, in part, to the inability to find the person.

They can also open an inquiry if the police believes a missing person is dead and the coroner thinks the missing person’s body is destroyed, can’t be recovered or is lost. The person must also have been in New Zealand immediately before their body was destroyed, unable to be recovered or lost.

Coronial inquiry

The coroner will conduct an inquiry in the same way as if a body had been found. They will need evidence that the missing person is probably dead, such as:

  • the circumstances of their disappearance
  • bank accounts have stayed unused since the person went missing
  • there has been no contact with family, friends or work colleagues.

If the coroner concludes that the missing person is dead, the death can be registered by the coroner with Births, Deaths & Marriages. Birth, Deaths & Marriages may then issue a death certificate.

In some cases, it may be necessary to make a finding where a body has not been able to be recovered but the coroner knows where it is. In these cases evidence of the fact of death still needs to be established.

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