For fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there is a popular scene that few people can forget. It’s the scene in which a man, with an old man slung over his shoulder, begins bartering with the grave digger to take the elderly man because he claims that he is dead. While the old man insists that he is not deceased, the two other men continue to discuss the very real possibility of him being dead despite the fact that the old man is clearly talking and, in fact, alive.
But while this is clearly a work of fiction, a very similar set of circumstances took place in Ohio this month that certainly calls into question the legal nature of pronouncing someone dead. It may also, for our Oklahoma readers, bring up issues involving an estate plan and how a situation like this can affect your end-of-life choices.
The case is certainly a bizarre one that began back in 1994 when a wife had her husband declared legally dead after he mysteriously disappeared and was never discovered. Recently though the now 61-year-old man has returned, explaining that he had "simply drifted away to work in Georgia and Florida." But because a judge had him declared legally dead, he was having trouble getting a driver’s license -- not to mention potential issues with establishing a will and other end-of-life-wishes -- and needed his Social Security number reactivated.
Just like in the Monty Python film, the man insisted that he wasn’t dead. It was clear to anyone in the courtroom -- he was standing right there. But according to state law, the judge explained, the man was legally dead and the declaration could not be reversed.
Though our state laws might be worded differently, the case above is a very real set of circumstances that could be experienced by anyone. As many of our readers know, a premature declaration of death can spell disaster for an estate plan which is contingent on a person’s passing. In the man’s case, any wills, trusts or other estate plans may have already been executed when the judge first declared him deceased. Any future estate plans might not be accepted either, raising questions about current and future assets that he might want distributed to his family. It’s certainly a situation not easily remedied and that requires the expertise of an attorney for sure.
Source: The New York Times, "Declared Legally Dead, as He Sat Before the Judge," John Schwartz, Oct. 11, 2013