“In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes” Benjamin Franklin. What if this were no longer true in the case of death?
A landmark case was recently won by a 14 year old girl (“JS”) suffering from cancer in the last few days before she died. JS and her maternal family raised the £37,000 required for cryopreservation in the hope that one day she can be revived and cured.
Cryopreservation involves the cooling down of legally-dead people to the temperature of liquid nitrogen in the few minutes after they die in order to stop physical decay. Around 2,000 people are thought to be signed up for cryopreservation and now even Simon Cowell has said that he plans to be frozen upon his death.
There are undoubtedly moral and ethical issues regarding cryopreservation but, should the technology be proven in the future, it will also raise questions in the field of Wills and Probate.
Currently, the point of death is clear and a Will would come into effect at that time. However, what would be the position if revival were possible? The law assumes that death is final and permanent; what if this were not the case?
The issue poses dilemmas regarding whether the cryopreserved person can be considered legally-dead. The Cryonics Institute chooses to describe them as a ‘patient’ and see them as legally-dead but not “inevitably dead”. But what does this mean?
Therefore, can we administer and distribute estates if a person is cryopreserved when there might be a possibility that they will be revived?
The issue also raises questions regarding life insurance and inheritance tax. Life insurers currently pay out upon death but how would this operate if death is no longer final? And what will happen about the taxing of estates?
If the technology is ever proven, will people opting for it choose to draft their Wills leaving their estates in trust for themselves when they wake up? How would family members react if, instead of inheriting, the estate is held in trust just in case money is needed for the maintenance of the body and/or to provide living expenses for the cryopreserved person?
In the case of JS, these questions regarding the distribution of the estate are less relevant as she was a minor. However, they become very relevant if, for example, someone like Simon Cowell were to opt for cryopreservation. What would happen to his assets? Would we be in a position to administer and distribute his estate? Would he really want to wake up and find his entire wealth is gone?
Without knowing whether it will ever become possible for cryopreserved people to be revived and, further still, cured, it is hard to predict what will happen. For now we must presume that the administration of estates will go on as normal but who knows what the future might bring.