A new law could be introduced to give families of missing people the power to deal with the legal and financial affairs of their loved ones.
As well as the obvious emotional turmoil of coping with a loved one disappearing, there are practical issues too.
The plans being consulted on by the Ministry of Justice would look at the creation of a status of guardian, so relatives of a missing person could manage their property and affairs.
This would enable the guardian to suspend direct debits for mobile phone and utility bills or to make mortgage payments, for example.
It follows the Presumption of Death Act 2013 in England and Wales. Under this law, a person may be legally declared dead despite the absence of direct proof of the person’s death, such as the finding of remains.
The declaration is typically made when a person has been missing for an extended period of time and in the absence of any evidence that the person is still alive.
Certificates of presumed death have been introduced and can be applied for by relatives as from October 1, 2014. Like death certificates, they enable families to resolve a loved one’s affairs when he or she is thought have died.
The process already existed in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The proposed guardian status would create new powers for relatives of missing people.
Under the proposals, an appointment could be made by the court on application by an interested person after a person has been missing for at least 90 days.
The guardian would have to account for their actions to a supervisory body. The appointment would last for up to four years with the possibility of extension for a further four.
Justice Minister Lord Faulks QC said: “The emotional and personal problems caused by absences of several months or even years are all too obvious, but they can be compounded by the practical consequences of the disappearance.”
The proposals have been backed by the Susannah Drury, the Director of Policy and Advocacy for Missing People.
The possible terms of the guardianship are still under review and consultation ends on November 18.