The sad case of an unclaimed body in a Dargaville funeral home now has a happy ending, after Perpetual Guardian applied for, and was granted, Letters of Administration by the High Court to administer the estate of Thomas Brugman.
The media showed a lot of interest when it first came to light that the body of Thomas Brugman was in a funeral home seven months after he had died. Imagine, a person dies with no known relatives and no Will – what is a funeral director supposed to do when there is no-one to give guidance or instruction for a funeral, burial or cremation? This was the dilemma faced by the funeral director in Mr Brugman’s case and a reality faced by many others each year in New Zealand. The law is virtually silent on the matter meaning that there are legal risks for anyone looking to make decisions in the absence of relatives or a Will.
At Perpetual Guardian, we have 15 branches throughout NZ and see ourselves as part of the community of Kiwis all across the country. It was obvious that no-one else was prepared to help so we stepped forward. With the cooperation of a couple of close friends of Mr Brugman and Hart Funerals of Dargaville, we applied to formally administer his estate effectively and take on this position enabling us to authorise a dignified send off.
John McFetridge, General Manager of Personal Client Services was quoted saying “We feel a great sense of responsibility and pride in being able to support families with fiduciary services, and are happy that Mr Brugman has now been laid to rest. The service was attended by local friends of Thomas and Perpetual Guardian to ensure he had the send-off he deserved.”
Though the case is unusual, it highlights a problematic gap in legislation. Technically, when a person dies, the responsibility for the body goes to the executor. However, it typically takes six weeks to apply for and receive probate – so in the meantime the family will take on the burial of the deceased as a matter of custom.
In this case, Mr Brugman died without a Will or any family to take over. Regardless, this gap between legislation and custom needs to be addressed, because every year there are unclaimed people like Mr Brugman in morgues and funeral homes.
As a result of the Brugman case, Perpetual Guardian is working with the Funeral Directors Association of NZ (FDANZ), its members and others to ensure that we don’t see a repeat of this tragic situation.
Until the legislation is changed, Perpetual Guardian has offered our support on a case-by-case basis to ensure an executor or administrator is appointed, including where no family exists. Our company is prepared to take on that role at our expense.
Mr McFetridge acknowledges the support and responsiveness of FDANZ and the High Court: “The court was very cooperative and constructively helpful in this matter, and we are grateful to have a collaborative relationship with FDANZ, which shares our view as to how the law could be better defined for the benefit of New Zealanders.”
Mr Brugman’s story is not quite concluded – we have been approached by possible distant relatives in the Netherlands, and are working with them to define the Brugman family tree and determine the ultimate beneficiaries.