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Don't ask for my Next of Kin!

Updated: 4 days ago

Organisations must update their approach to emergency contact details, says Penny Shepherd of AWOC East Kent


Whether on official forms or elsewhere, being asked for your “next of kin” is often problematic for AWOCs.


“When people ask me to record my next of kin, I write ‘None’ and they can think I’m a sad git if they want to” commented one member of AWOC East Kent. Others report being told that they can’t book a holiday unless they can give a “next of kin”.


While many people suspect that they can list someone other than their closest blood relative, there often remains considerable uncertainty about whether this is definitely permitted either by law or by public bodies.


And the term suggests that “surely everybody has a next of kin”. Those without close family can see this as excluding or criticising them for a failure to conform to social norms. Some feel it is a stigma to have no family or close friends and therefore humiliating to have to admit that on a form.


In fact, the term “next of kin” has no legal meaning for adults in the UK unless or until you die without a will. Then it means the relative or relatives who will inherit any assets. But these people have no specific powers while you are alive, although you might not realise that from some material published online.


For example, if you lose capacity, no relative has powers to speak for you on health and welfare matters or to manage your finances just as a result of their family relationship with you, even if they are your spouse or sibling. That responsibility sits with whoever you have awarded your powers of attorney, whether that is family, friends or a professional adviser, and if you have not done that then with the Court of Protection.


The situation is different if you are being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, when you will be asked for your “nearest relative” rather than your “next of kin”, but that is rarely relevant for those ageing without children. Indeed, even then, your life partner will count ahead of blood relatives, “nearest relative” is limited to specific close relatives and Mind, the mental health charity, highlights that “Your nearest relative is not the same as your next of kin. The next of kin doesn't have any rights under the Mental Health Act".


So it is unlikely that you will ever need to name the third cousin that you last met at a funeral twenty years ago and who would have no practical information that was relevant in most emergencies.


So why do public authorities and businesses still use the term?


The “next of kin” question is usually just an unhelpful or lazy way to ask for an emergency contact. One local authority recently told us “We refer to next of kin to understand who to contact if the need arises. This can be anyone that the person nominates.” The useful guide “Next of Kin: Understanding Decision Making Authorities”, produced with the National Mental Capacity Forum, describes the term as “euphemistic shorthand for ‘Who is the person we communicate with about you and who do we contact when you are dead?’”.


This approach fails to recognise that many of us without family support don’t have a single primary contact. For example, if I have lost my keys, you will want to know about the neighbour who holds a spare. But there is no point in contacting my neighbour if I drop dead in the street; then you need to know my executor – which isn’t the sort of information most people share with their neighbour. And, in some other circumstances, please recognise that I just don’t have any support available.


One example of good practice is the NHS “Recommended Summary Plan for Emergency Care and Treatments” (ReSPECT) form. Under the heading “Emergency Contacts and those involved in discussing this plan”, it asks for name, role/relationship and contact details. It does not use potentially alienating terms like “your family”, “your loved ones”, “friends and family” or indeed “next of kin”. It also asks explicitly for additional information like whether a patient has a health and welfare attorney and/or certain advance care planning documents.


And, of course, sometimes the issue is not just the outdated and misleading term “next of kin” but an absence of relevant personal contacts at all. While entitlement to an Independent Mental Capacity Advocate in some circumstances is reassuring, public bodies, businesses and society as a whole need to go further to redesign systems and processes for when the only accurate response to the “next of kin” question is “None”.


Given the growing number of AWOCs, an improved approach to contact information should now be prioritised. Public bodies and businesses need to stop using catch-all terms like “next of kin” and be clear about the purpose for which contact information will be used – to be respectful to the increasing number of us without family support and to get a useful response. We no longer live in a world in which nearly everyone has a “next of kin”.


Penny Shepherd


Penny Shepherd is a steering committee member of AWOC East Kent. This blog was informed by conversations among AWOC East Kent members.

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