Natalee Holloway was declared legally dead by an Alabama judge on Thursday. She disappeared in 2006, after leaving a bar in Aruba with Joran van der Sloot, who has since confessed to a separate murder. Holloway’s father requested the ruling to provide closure, deal with Natalee’s estate, and remove her from his health insurance. What happens if Holloway miraculously turns up?
The judge can reverse the order. People who have been declared legally dead sometimes return, and it’s a simple administrative matter to have the order of death nullified. The real problem is what to do with the person’s former property, which by that time has been distributed to his or her heirs. Some judges take the view that the order to resolve an estate is irreversible, so the legal Lazarus no longer has any right to his old stuff. In other courts, the returnee can recover the property, as long as the heirs haven’t already sold it. (Holloway’s largest asset was reportedly a college trust fund.) A few judges take the view that the executor is liable for all of the distributed property, since he never should have given it away. Because of the unsettled state of the law, it’s hard to say what would happen in the Holloway case were she to reappear. These situations are rare, and most of the landmark precedents are old and bear little resemblance to modern cases. (The classic reappearance cases involve 17th- and 18th-century shipwrecked sailors who spent years on a distant island before hitchhiking home on a passing ship.)
As for Holloway’s health insurance, companies have no provision to suspend a policy while someone is missing. From their perspective, a person is either alive and insured, or dead and uninsured—there’s no gray area. If Holloway were to reappear, she would have to reapply for health insurance.
There is a law for “death in absentia” in every U.S. state. The concept is traceable to a 1666 English statute designed to resolve the status of lands held by people who had “gone beyond the Seas or soe absented themselves for many yeares.” The default waiting period is typically seven years, but family members can move for the order earlier if circumstances suggest that the person is likely dead.
While useful for surviving family members who want to distribute assets or remarry after years of uncertainty, legal death is a much abused concept. Following a 1964 coup, Brazilian leaders declared 1,200 former soldiers legally dead to take away their pensions and benefits. Russian czars did the same to the criminals they banished to Siberia, then dissolved their marriages and designated any future children as illegitimate. Some residents of leper colonies in medieval Europe were also pronounced legally dead.
A handful of Americans have risen from the legal dead in recent decades. Ben Holmes, an Ohio auto mechanic who had been framed for arson, is probably the best known (and certainly the most bizarre) case. He faked his own death in 1980. His wife, who seems not to have known he was still alive, had him declared legally dead eight years later. Holmes reappeared to his wife—his widow, legally speaking—in the late 1990s, but by that time she was seeing another man. After he interfered with the affair, his ex-wife shot him in their home and outed him to the authorities. There is no record of Holmes moving to reverse the legal death ruling; he seems to have simply gone on with his life as if the order was never issued. Nor did he try to reclaim property that his wife inherited after his legal demise. Holmes did, however, get a settlement from his former wife for shooting him.
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Explainer thanks attorney James S. Gentile and John H. Langbein of Yale Law School.