Earlier this month, Donald Eugene Miller stood before Judge Allen Davis in the probate court in Hancock County, Ohio, and asked for the court to recognize that he’s alive. The court denied his motion and ruled that based on a declaration entered by the court almost 20 years ago, Donald is still dead.
Donald disappeared from his home in Arcadia, Ohio, sometime in August 1986, leaving behind his former wife, Robin, their two minor daughters and his delinquent child support obligations. Birthdays came and went with no card in the mail. His wife and children didn’t hear a word from him. Nor did they see a dime from him. Nor did the government see an income tax return from him after 1986.
Robin spent eight years trying to find him. She contacted child support enforcement agencies and missing persons agencies, and she hired a private detective, all to no avail. By 1994, Donald owed her over $30,000 in child support.
At that point, Robin and her daughters brought a complaint in the probate court in Hancock County, asking the court to declare Donald dead so that the two minor-daughters could receive social security benefits. Robin stated at the time, “I think that most good parents would understand and if possible do the same thing I did.” Although it was rumored that he was still alive and that his parents had spoken to him, no one came forward to testify as to his whereabouts. The court granted Robin’s request and declared Donald dead.
Presumption of Death
Under Ohio law, if a person disappears, remains continuously absent from his last known address and isn’t heard from for at least five years, then he may be presumed dead at the request of anyone who stands to gain any right or interest by reason of his death. Ohio Rev. Stat. Sections 2101.01-02. Similar presumptions exist in other states and under federal law. For example, with respect to veterans’ benefits, if evidence “is submitted establishing the continued and unexplained absence of any individual from that individual’s home and family for seven or more years, and establishing that after diligent search no evidence of that individual’s existence after the date of disappearance has been found or received, the death of such individual as of the date of the expiration of such period shall be considered as sufficiently proved.”1 Under this standard too, Donald would still be dead.
But several years ago, Donald resurfaced and showed up at his parents’ house in Ohio. He says that, at that time, his parents informed him that he had been declared dead.
In July of this year, Donald filed a complaint with the probate court seeking an order finding him to be alive and vacating the prior decree. Donald, who if he were legally alive today, would be 61 years old, offered a limited account of his whereabouts for the past 20 years. He explained that he skipped town because he lost his job, was an alcoholic and simply didn’t know what else to do. So he drifted down to Georgia and Florida for a couple of decades, worked odd jobs and let everyone assume whatever they wanted about where he was or what had happened to him.
But now, after almost 20 years, Donald has grown tired of death. Being dead might not be so bad, but as it turns out, you can’t really do much. You can’t legally work and you can’t get a driver’s license. You can’t collect any social security benefits either, which makes a lot of sense especially if, like Donald, your children started collecting that money as survivor benefits when you died.
Donald told the court that he wants his life back. Or, he qualified, “whatever’s left of it.” He thought a nice start would be for the court to vacate the death decree and have his social security number reinstated. Then, if things went really well, maybe he would even apply for a driver’s license.
But Robin opposed his efforts to vacate the decree based on the fact that 19 years had elapsed, and Ohio law provides that the probate court may only vacate a decree establishing a presumption of death within three years. Robin also contended that Donald came to the court with unclean hands and that she was prepared to present testimony of family members and other evidence showing that Donald was aware of the proceedings back in 1994, at the time they were going on.
That evidence ultimately wasn’t necessary. Judge Allan Davis – the same judge who declared Donald legally dead back in 1994 – ordered on Oct. 7 that, because more than three years have elapsed since the decree, as far as the law is concerned, Donald is still dead.
1. 38 U.S.C. Section 108.