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Terminally ill teen wins right to freeze body

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March 28, 2024

The papers are full today of the tragic case of a 14 year-old girl with terminal cancer who did not wish to die. She told her mother that after her death she wished to have her body cryogenically frozen and thus there was the possibility she could come back to life. Her mother agreed and the mother’s parents raised the sum of £37,000 to allow this to happen in the United States. The father, who also needed to consent as her parent even though she had not seen him since 2008, refused to do so and was concerned he might be required to contribute to the cost.

What we are going to look in this post is how in law the child’s wishes were carried out.

First of all, a child cannot make a will. Even if this case involved an adult, a will can only give an indication of what the person concerned wishes to happen to their body after death. It does not have the legal force of law.

When children die, they do so “intestate” without a will.

In law, both parents have the right to apply for “Letters of Administration” to deal with the estate of their child.  This includes the right to deal with the child’s body.

Readers of this blog will know we tackled a similar, equally tragic case pro bono for a mother recently. In that case, the father had killed the child and refused to allow the mother to dispose of the body. The child’s remains had stayed with the undertaker for a year before we got involved. We obtained Letters of Administration for the mother in those tragic circumstances, bypassing any rights of the father given the circumstances, and the child was laid to rest in accordance with the mother’s wishes. Sometime later, the mother herself tragically passed away.

In this case, both parents were in dispute. Time was absolutely of the essence given the nature of what the child wanted. The court was unusually being asked to make orders prior to a death. The court not only had to prevent the father from applying for Letters of Administration but also to make orders in advance of the child’s death granting Letters of Administration to the mother and permitting her to take those steps immediately on the death of the child.

Mr Justice Peter Jackson determined the court had jurisdiction to take all these steps and thus made an order in the interests of the child, injuncting the father. The Judge made orders to take effect on the child’s death granting the mother sole right to Letters of Administration and permitting her to have the child’s body cryogenically frozen.

The Judge then went further and ten days before the child passed away, at the child’s request, went to visit her in hospital. No doubt this was to explain what orders he had made and set her mind at rest. It’s hard to imagine how difficult that must have been for him and all credit to him for doing so.

As a family lawyer, I know there are tragic cases to be dealt with objectively and professionally, including when I have been instructed to discuss with a dying person what is to happen to the children on that parent’s death with instructions to carry them out if opposed by the other parent. The dying parent can only express a wish by will and ultimately it would be up to a court to decide.

My colleague Jane Gray, who specialises in wills and probate cases, represented the bereaved mother I mentioned above who was trying to have her child’s remains laid to rest as she wished. I know from the very grateful thanks she received from all the family afterwards how she dealt with a difficult case in her usual careful and deeply caring way. But it wasn’t easy.

Family law also covers many areas that are thankfully rare but when they do occur it challenges the best of us to deal with them.

Read the full High Court judgment here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. keith says:

    this is such a saddening story but it is also complicated.
    i wonder if the family have thought things through properly with regards to being frozen in time
    with the hope she can be brought back to life and cured in the future.
    the problem with this is that it could be another 50 to 100 yrs if not longer before medical science
    can perform such procedures. if it take 100 yrs then when she awakes their will nobody left alive who
    she remembers and the world will look nothing like it did 100 yrs ago.
    they might not have considered this.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear KEith
      My understanding is it was the child who wanted this because she didn’t want to die. At 14 you can’t blame her and what was so great was how the Judge went to such lengths to adhere to her wishes.

      • keith says:

        So what happens if it take 100 + yrs for science to do this and when she awakes she wont know anyone and all of her family will be gone. basically she will awake in a Alien world that will look nothing like when she died. i dont think they have though of that. she will be all alone in a Alien world. there may well be relatives alive but she will not know any of them.
        she probably thinks that when she awakes in the future that all her family will still be there and she can pick up where she left off. thats highly unlikely.

        • Mehul Desai says:

          Hi Keith, I don’t think the case was about Cryonics pros/cons, it was simply to resolve the dispute between the parents as to how the body should be laid to rest and the Judge took the Child’s position (and the mothers because it was the same) because she was old enough at 14 to decide. JPJ didn’t go into a speculative scenario because the science may never have a cure/cryonics may never work – but then again he looked at Sperm/Egg Cells being frozen/unfrozen so maybe in future it may be possible, we don’t know.

          JPJ ended with saying Parliament needs to consider cryonics and whether an Act of Parliament is passed to regulate cryonics in UK will be a matter of debate.

          • keith says:

            hi Marilyn,

            i hope you didnt take my views as though im against Cryonics.
            i have no problem with people wanting to be frozen with the hope they can be brought back in the near future.
            my only issue with this idea is how these individuals will cope if they are awakened and there is nobody left alive from their immediate family. yes its a great thought that you could be brought back from the dead in the near future and continue with your loved ones. but what if there are none of your loved ones left alive. that could be psychologically hard to deal with.

          • JamesB says:

            Bit like divorce when your wife walks out on you and takes the kids and expects you to pay for it with all the money and assets.

          • JamesB says:

            Plus large chunk of feminist tax on income to be paid ongoing to finance the breakup of society and encouraging such behaviour on top of that.

  2. Kirk Chang says:

    I feel very upset about the stroy ending for two reasons. First, I could not understand why this father did not apply for Letters of Administration in time, especially when he had a very valid viewpoint? He couldn’t apply for it, he couldn’t afford it, or he didn’t know he could do that? Second, although I am not a Jehovah witness, but I agree with Jehovah’s statement that life and reactivated body are not the same.

  3. Andrew says:

    This may not be a popular viewpoint but here goes anyway.
    This practice should not be allowed.
    We get one life each, long or short as may be, and when it is over that is the end for us as far as this planet and its resources are concerned. Nobody has any right to claim a second time round.
    Larry Niven wrote a short story about a future world in which people who have been frozen until they can be cured are unfrozen and cured – but find that the trusts they created of their money have been declared void and they are regarded as effectively slave labour, as a punishment for their greed. It could happen.
    Let’s not.

    • keith says:

      “We get one life each, long or short as may be, and when it is over that is the end for us as far as this planet and its resources are concerned. Nobody has any right to claim a second time round”.

      I have to disagree on this one. 14 yrs of life is not exactly a normal human lifespan and if this girl can be given the chance to have the rest of her average lifespan then i say she should be allowed to.
      nobody on this planet has the right to dictate who can and cannot have a second chance.
      the rule of life in the universe is simple. There are no rules. i say Live and let Live.

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