In the news this week was the story of one Mr Donald Miller from Ohio. In 1986, Mr Miller went missing from his Arcadia rental home, leaving behind him a wife and two children as well as a debt of at least $25,000 (£15,646) in unpaid child support payments. He was declared legally dead in 1994 at the request of his wife, so that she would be able to claim Social Security Death Benefit for the children. In 2005 it emerged that Mr Miller was in fact alive and well when he tried to apply for a driving licence. This week in court a judge concluded that he would not overturn the ruling that Mr Miller was legally deceased.
Death in Absentia is the term given to cases where people have gone missing for a period of time long enough for them to be declared legally dead. Usually in the UK and the USA, a person must be missing for at least 7 years. This must be continuous and without explanation. The court must also be satisfied that they have not been in contact with those closest to them and that extensive inquiries have been made in an attempt to find them, without success.
If a person is ruled as dead in law then their estate will be distributed according to their will, or if they do not have a will, through a Grant of Representation. Should it later come to light that they are not dead and the ruling is reversed, they can contest the division of their estate and appeal to the court to have their assets returned. In the case of genuine missing persons, like for example Prisoners of War or anyone who was subject to kidnap, there is usually no issue in having the ruling overturned.
In Mr Miller’s case the judge stated that under law he could not reverse the ruling. Mr Miller now has 30 days to appeal the decision, but if that is rejected, he will have to carry on through life without any official documentation, which means no Social Security number, no driving licence and no passport. However, if he is declared to be alive again, he will be required to pay his outstanding child support payments and his former wife will have to pay back all of the Social Security Death Benefit that she received over the years.
Famous cases of death in absentia include that of aviator Amelia Earhart; musician Glenn Miller and writer Ian Mackintosh.