What Does ‘Presumed Dead’ Mean After Someone’s Missing?

Updated

Losing a loved one is always difficult, but it can be even more complicated if they go missing. In the media, you often hear phrases like “presumed dead,” but what does this actually mean? Is it possible to prove a death if there’s no body found? It’s important to understand the legality of “presumed dead” for things like filing death certificates and processing grief. 

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Each state in the United States has guidelines for this topic under their own definitions of “presumed dead.” This allows families to declare an individual “presumed dead” for legal purposes after a specific amount of time. Developed after the tragedy of the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks, this Act makes it possible for families to finalize their loved one’s affairs. 

It’s impossible to legally declare someone dead without a body except with the assistance of a judge in a court of law. The specific steps depend on the circumstances around the search for the missing person, as well as the family's wishes. It’s hard to know what to do when someone dies, especially if they’ve been missing. In this guide, we’ll explore what it means when someone’s “presumed dead” after being missing. 

Definition of ‘Presumed Dead’

First, what does “presumed dead” mean? This is a legal term that’s outlined by the Social Security Administration. According to the Social Security Handbook, a missing person can be presumed dead if they’ve been missing for upwards of seven years. Regardless of the reason for absence, legal courts declare someone as “presumed dead” if there has been no sign of them for seven+ years. 

Another way to think about the term “presumed dead” is as a way to define death with no body. In cases where someone goes missing, it’s not always automatically assumed that they’re dead. There is generally a search to find the missing person, and they could be discovered alive. There are many common examples of this, like the World Trade Center tragedy, the disappearance of airline flights, or after natural disasters. 

In moments of tragedy and confusion, it’s not always clear who survived. It can take days, weeks, months, or even years to have an accurate record of the deceased. Families have the ability to apply to the court to have their relatives listed as “presumed dead” for legal purposes. This allows them to finalize legal affairs, like applying for insurance benefits or planning a memorial service. 

How Long Does It Take for a Missing Person to Be ‘Presumed Dead?’

With that definition in mind, when can a missing person be “presumed dead?” This has to be a long enough amount of time to convince a judge that the missing person is most likely deceased. The specific time you have to wait depends on the circumstances of the disappearance. 

In most states, the rule is that anywhere from five to seven years need to pass before someone can be presumed dead. During this time, this person needs to have not been heard from in any way. If any of the following are true, it’s generally presumed they’re deceased:

  • The individual leaves or disappears and is not seen or heard from for five to seven+ years
  • The individual disappears in a foreign country with no found body

In some cases, the family might need to wait the full five to seven+ years. This is true if the person was exposed to a peril of death that is likely to be sufficient for determining death. This includes things like:

  • Disappearing on the high seas
  • Disappearing in an aircraft
  • Drowning
  • Hiking or mountaineering
  • Natural disaster (flood, hurricane, tsunami, etc.)
  • Terrorist attack

Again, someone can only be presumed dead if a court is able to provide sufficient evidence of the death. Family members typically need to make statements, provide evidence, and prove efforts have been made to find the missing party. The court acts in the best interest of the person who disappeared. With many families facing undeniable grief for missing people, it’s important to have a path forward.

Examples of Someone Being ‘Presumed Dead’ After They’re Missing

Though likely not something you think about often, there are many well-known examples of people who are “presumed dead” after they’ve gone missing. This is a common occurrence, especially when you consider that 600,000 individuals go missing in the US every year. Below, explore some of the most well-known examples of people being presumed dead after they’ve been missing. 

September 11th, 2001

First, one of the biggest examples of this is the September 11th, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Even decades after these attacks, 1,113 victims of the 2,753 who died still have not been identified. 

Though these victims are undoubtedly dead, there is no bodily proof. In 2005, the process of identifying remains was called off due to the limits of DNA technology at the time. To this day, many families struggle with not having physical remains under their loved ones’ headstones. 

Hurricane Katrina

Another example of missing people being presumed dead is after natural disasters. When things like hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis sweep the earth, it’s not always possible to find everyone who is deceased. In New Orleans, many victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 remain unidentified. 

Of the 1,170 bodies discovered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more than 80 were unidentified. These families presumed their loved ones dead, trying to find some closure after an unspeakable tragedy. 

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Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Similarly, when flights or watercraft go missing, families typically presume their loved ones are dead after an extensive search for bodies. This is what happened in the case of the 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappearance. 

Over 227 passengers and 12 crew members went missing, leading to one of the biggest mysteries around missing aircrafts in history. In a disaster like this, it’s not possible to recover bodies. Though nobody will ever know for sure what happened to the victims, families have to do their best to grieve without closure. 

How You Can Remember a Loved One Who’s Presumed Dead

Though losing someone who is presumed dead is never easy, you can still honor their legacy. It’s true that laying a loved one’s body to rest can help with grief, but there are many ways to create your own sense of closure. Here are ideas for remembering a loved one who’s presumed dead. 

Create a memorial service

First, you can always hold a memorial service in honor of someone’s memory even without a body. This can follow the same order of service as a funeral, including prayers, eulogies, and recollections. Gathering together to express your grief is a source of comfort. 

Place a headstone

Another way to remember a loved one presumed missing is to have a headstone placed in his or her honor. This is common with many people who are lost without a body, especially after tragedies. You don’t need a casket to place a headstone. Having somewhere to visit to be alone with your loved one’s memory is its own form of peace. 

Host a birthday celebration

Because it’s not always possible to pinpoint the date of someone’s death if they’re missing, consider celebrating their birthday instead. A birthday celebration is the perfect time to remember what made this person special, and you don’t have to worry about the specifics of their death. This can be a yearly tradition to honor your loved ones. 

Donate to a cause

If someone passes in a tragedy, it can create a sense of helplessness for family members. Taking back control by donating to a worthy cause is a beautiful act of remembrance. Whether you donate to other victims or a cause your loved one cared about, you’ll be making the world a better place. 

Share their stories

Lastly, don’t be afraid to share their story. No matter the circumstances around their death, you can keep their memory alive. When we tell stories that are important to us, we keep our loved one’s legacy at the forefront of our thoughts. We all have a story that deserves to be told, whether online, in print, or in person. 

Presumed Dead: From Missing to Remembered

Ultimately, the legal language around presumed dead isn’t always clear. While we never want to imagine a future where we lose someone close to us, these tragedies do happen. Death isn’t always black-and-white. Sometimes families have to make the most of what they have, drawing their own conclusions about their loved ones’ fates. 

By creating legal guidelines around what it means to be “presumed dead,” we can honor those who are no longer with us. Whether someone goes missing on a hike or in a natural disaster, it’s important that every story is told to the fullest. 


Sources:
  1. Bordelon, Christine. “Memorial keeps vigil for unknown Katrina victims.” Clarion Herald. ClarionHerald.org. 
  2. “Code of Virginia.” Virginia Law. Law.Virginia.gov.
  3. Gregersen, Erik. “Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappearance.” Britannica.com
  4. National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Namus.NIJ.gov
  5. Schuppe, Jon. “Still Missing: Unidentified Remains Leave a Lingering Void for 9/11 Families.” NBC News. NBCnews.com
  6. “When is a missing person presumed dead?” Social Security Handbook. SSA.gov

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