Canoe Paddle

The case of the man who faked his own death


The new ITV drama ‘The Thief, his Wife and the Canoe’ focuses on the unbelievable true story of John Darwin who faked his own death for an insurance payout.

The facts

On 21 March 2002 John Darwin went out in his canoe at the seafront in Hartlepool. That night, he failed to turn up for his night shift at the prison where he worked and his wife Anne therefore called 999 and reported him missing, telling the operator she feared that ‘something dreadful might have happened’ to him.

Anne however knew that nothing dreadful had happened. Faced with increased mortgage repayments, and the banks refusing to lend them more money, John had decided to fake his own death so that Anne could claim on his life insurance. She had in fact picked him up earlier that night and taken him to the station so that he could escape to Cumbria and lie low until it was determined that he had been lost at sea. This was all part of an elaborate plan to commit insurance fraud.

After laying low living in a tent for almost a month, John returned home, disguised with a newly grown beard, and moved into a bedsit next door to the family home. The bedsit was connected to the family home through a hidden door behind a wardrobe. At the time, John and Anne had been married for almost 30 years and had two sons who were not in on their plan, and were grieving for their father whilst their mother knew he was in fact alive and well.

Anne received over £200,000 from a pension, a life insurance policy, and a mortgage protection policy as a result of their plan; however to do so, she would have needed a death certificate for John.

At the time, there was no single framework for obtaining a declaration that a missing person was to be presumed dead. Anne therefore applied to the Home Secretary for an inquest into John’s death, and more than a year after he had ‘disappeared’ a maritime death certificate was issued by the Hartlepool Coroner which enabled Anne to cash in on the insurance policies.

Flawed plan

The plan was flawed from the beginning. John used the address of the family home to obtain a new passport using the identity of somebody who was born 5 months before him but had died at 5 weeks old. Living in the bedsit next to the family home and going out under the disguise of his new beard he was in fact spotted several times by people who knew him, but these reports were brushed off as nonsense. However, it was upon moving to Panama that they made the mistake which would eventually bring the whole plan tumbling down. In Panama, John and Anne made the mistake of posing together for a photograph with a local estate agent; this photo would eventually bring to light the truth of the story.

In December 2007 John walked into a police station in London stating he believed he may be a missing person, claiming to have been suffering from amnesia. Anne was contacted and it seemed as though they had got away with their plan until the photograph with the estate agent in Panama resurfaced showing that Anne knew her husband was alive prior to his dramatic return.

Both John and Anne were sentenced to over 6 years in prison each and ordered to repay over £650,000.

So, what do you do when somebody is missing and presumed to be dead?

The Presumption of Death Act 2013 came into force on 1 October 2014 and deals with this very issue. The Act gives courts the power to make a declaration of presumed death. The court must make a declaration of presumed death if it is satisfied that the missing person has died or has not been known to be alive for a period of at least 7 years. If there is clear evidence that the missing person has died, a declaration of presumed death can be made immediately.

If a declaration of presumed death is made, this is deemed to be conclusive of the fact, date and time of death and is effective against all persons and for all purposes. Once the period for appeal has passed the court sends a copy of the declaration to the Registrar General to be entered into the Register of Presumed Deaths and a certified copy of the entry serves as proof of death in the same way as a death certificate.

Once the declaration of presumed death has been obtained, this can be used to deal with the missing persons affairs, including collecting in their assets and distributing them in accordance with their Will or the intestacy rules where there is no Will.

But what if the missing person returns after a declaration of presumed death is made?

If the missing person who has been declared to be presumed dead turns out to be alive and is no longer missing, the court can vary or revoke the declaration of presumed death by way of a variation order. This variation order however would not reinstate any marriage or civil partnership which was ended by the declaration of presumed death and would not affect interests in property which were acquired as a result of the declaration.

The court, at the time of making the declaration of presumed death may order that an insurance policy be taken out against the possibility of a variation order being made in the future, and insurance companies who pay out as a result of the declaration of presumed death may also require the beneficiary to take out insurance against the possibility of a future variation order.

More information

For further information please contact our private client team here.



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