The ABC show Resurrection focuses on the emotional roller coaster of the dead returning to life. Highlighting the complexity of these issues, a child who was dead for over 30 years returns to life. A DNA test showed he was the biological child of his surviving parents. Do the parents have a legal obligation to provide for their once dead child?
The law is not designed for resurrection. Marriages end at death. Property is distributed. Funerals are held. Families discuss their thoughts on the afterlife. Sometimes there is litigation with family members who will never speak to each other again.
So…what happens if a dead person comes back to life?
We have a Common Law rule that a person “who has not been heard from for 7 years is presumed dead.” See In re Estate of Dawson, 346 So. 2d 386, 391 (Ala. 1977), Kyser v. McGlinn, 207 Ala. 82, 92 So. 13 (1921); Walker v. Walker, 218 Ala. 16, 117 So. 472 (1928); Eisenberg v. Stein, 222 Ala. 576, 133 So. 281 (1931);
In a New York case from 1900, a wife brought a lawsuit against an insurance carrier for payment of her husband’s $2,000 policy, nine years after he disappeared. The insurance company settled with the wife for $666.00, with the remainder to be held in trust in the event the husband was alive. Twelve days after entering the agreement, the long lost husband was found alive. Sears v. Grand Lodge A. O. U. W., 163 N.Y. 374 (N.Y. 1900).
The Court held the $666.00 had to be paid to the wife, as it was the basis of a settlement agreement that had been lawfully entered into to end the litigation. Additionally, the company planned to hold the remainder in trust in the event the husband was found alive. You cannot contract to end litigation and plan to pay out zero for a settlement. Id.
What legal lessons could we apply to Resurrection? First, marriages end at the death of one spouse (See, Cal Fam Code § 2201). As such, a dead person coming back to life would not reinstate a marriage (or invalidate a subsequent one), because the resurrected spouse had died, thus ending the marriage.
The same argument could be made for insurance policy payments. The insured met the contractual requirement of death, which obligates insurance companies to pay. The fact a person returns to the living after years of being actually dead would not invalidate performance under the policy. The condition for performance was met (death) and policies do not include provisions for the dead returning to life after decades.
Insurance company attorneys would demand a change to all future policies, requiring that in the event of an insured returning back to life, the policy distribution be repaid. Whether or not that would make insurance contracts illusory and not enforceable would have to be tested in Court. Statutes of limitations would also have to be examined.
The dead returning to life would require a fundamental change to our laws over marriages, insurance policies, property rights and inheritance. Society has not planned for resurrections happening, because the dead stay dead. We will continue to explore these issues as the series progresses.