The reappearance of Brenda Heist in May after being declared legally dead has brought me all sorts of questions.
The Pennsylvania Statute that governs the property of absentees and persons presumed dead is at 50 Pa. Cons. Stat §§5701 through 5706. Generally, if a person disappears and is absent from his place of residence without being heard of after diligent inquiry, the county court may make a finding and decree that the absentee is dead and of the date of his death.
There are notice requirements. The matter must be advertised in a newspaper of general circulation in the county of the absentee’s last known residence and in the legal journal once each week for four successive weeks. Notice includes the hearing, which must be at least two weeks after the last appearance of the advertisement, when evidence will be heard concerning the alleged absence, including the circumstances and duration thereof.
An unexplained absence for seven years may be sufficient ground for finding that the absentee died seven years after he was last heard of. The seven years gives rise to a presumption but it is important to note that the court may declare an absentee dead before the expiration of 7 years. Conversely, the presumption can be overcome and a 7 year absence may not justify a finding that the absentee died. Evidence that the absent person was a fugitive from justice, had a bad relationship, was having money troubles, or had no family ties or connection to the community can be reasons not to presume death.
The fact that an absentee was exposed to a specific peril of death may be sufficient ground for finding that he died less than seven years after he was last heard of. An example would be an airplane crash. Passengers and crew of the Titanic who were not rescued by the RMS Carpathia were declared legally dead soon after Carpathia arrived at New York City.
In 2002, the statute was amended to provide that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are specific perils within the meaning of the law and a court would be justified to immediately determine that the presumed decedent died on September 11, 2001. Also, for persons presumed dead on September 11, 2001, the requirements of notice to the absentee and of the need to post a refunding bond for property distribution are eliminated.
What happens to the presumed decedent’s property?
The decedent’s property is administered by an executor of the will or administrator of the estate just as in the case of other decedents. However, the executor or administrator make not make any distributions to beneficiaries except by a court decree. The court, in awarding distribution, must require that a refunding bond, with or without security and in such form and amount as the court shall direct. The bond shall be conditioned that, if it shall later be established that the absentee was in fact alive at the time of distribution, the distributee will return the property to the preseumed decedednt, or if it has been disposed of, will make restitution