#TBT: Buffy is back (from the dead)!

I’ve been listening to the songs from Once More with Feeling a lot lately. [I’m glad La La Land helped spread some new love for musicals in Hollywood but it doesn’t hold a candle to the greatness that is Buffy’s musical episode.] And then I learned that it was twenty years ago this month that Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV show, began. So the signs were clear: it was time for me to write a post about my favorite geek TV show of all time.

I missed the beginning of the Buffy phenomenon, turned off both by the name (a problem I had with Jane the Virgin and My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend too, shows I’m now obsessed with) and the movie. I only caught on to the Buffy phenomenon a few years later, when I was in law school and FX started broadcasting reruns back to back. Back then–pre-DVRs, Hulu, and Netflix–reruns were the only way to catch up on a show you had otherwise missed. Once I caught up on the old ones I started watching the new episodes. And if I missed one of the new episodes, I had to go to Television Without Pity to find out what I missed. [Wow, how did we ever manage before all of these awesome new technologies that let us watch our shows whenever and wherever we want?]

Season five ended with one of the most amazing cliffhangers ever (spoiler alert!): Buffy realizes what her gift is and sacrifices herself to save her sister and the world. It was also the 100th episode of the show and the last episode on the WB so the wait to see what happened the next year on the UPN was excruciating.

Season six was criticized by many for being too dark, but I loved it. And the fact that Buffy’s death and resurrection brought us one of the most amazing Hollywood musicals ever only proves how amazing that season was. [I was just temporarily distracted by a review of the season six and it reminded me of how much I loved that season and its finale as well—Big Bad Willow was awesome! I’m also pleasantly surprised at what a true superstar Jonathon became. I loved Danny Strong’s acting on both Buffy and Gilmore Girls but I guess he’s even stronger as a writer!]

Season six was obviously about the entire Scooby Gang dealing with the ramifications of bringing Buffy back from the dead. Bringing her back was an impressive act of witchcraft by Willow, but as a legal geek, I was more interested in the logistics: What kind of paperwork does that involve?

The answer: A lot. It’s a painful process without a guaranteed solution so try to avoid this situation if at all possible (a good rule for hellmouths as well).

The usual reason a non-dead person has to deal with coming back from the dead is because their “death” was the result of a typographical error or they were declared dead in absentia. Buffy, of course, doesn’t fall into either of these categories–she actually came back from the dead and had to bust out of her own gravesite. Can’t blame her for falling into a destructive relationship with Spike after that trauma.

So what happens when you die?

“For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow,
but phone calls taper off.” 
-Johnny Carson

More importantly, you get entered in the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. Creepy as it sounds, that’s where the Social Security Administration has been keeping track of the Social Security numbers of everyone who’s died since 1980. Unfortunately, those numbers are still entered into the file by humans and sometimes errors occur, leading to people who are very much alive and well being told they are, in fact, dead.

And if your Social Security number comes up as “dead,” then you’re going to be treated like a zombie: no tax filings or refunds, no new driver’s license, rejections of any application where you’re required to provide a Social Security number. For some, it’s a brutal, years-long process that leaves them impoverished and depressed.

In addition, there can be other legal ramifications for being declared dead, especially if you were declared dead by a court in absentia. That means your estate has been disbursed, life insurance benefits paid, and Social Security disbursements made to dependents. California Probate Code Section 12408 addresses this in a section entitled “Reappearance of missing person; recovery of property; limitations of actions; order for final distribution conclusive as to parties; disputed identity of reappearing missing person.” Under that section, if you reappear you can recover assets (minus fees and costs) that are still in the possession of your estate’s personal representative. §12408(a)(1). You might be able to recover assets that have already been given to your beneficiaries, if that recovery is deemed “equitable in view of all of the circumstances.” §12408(a)(2). And if you reappear more than five years after your assets have been distributed, you’re out of luck. Id.

That’s not as bad as what happened to Donald Miller in Ohio. Declared dead by a court at the request of his ex-wife (he wasn’t paying his child support and couldn’t be found), he showed up years later and tried to be officially declared alive again. The court refused, however, explaining that under Ohio law he could only challenge a finding of death within three years of the order being entered. Miller had waited longer than that so the court told him he had to stay dead!

Presumably, the Scooby Gang was too busy fighting monsters in Sunnydale to notify the Social Security Administration about Buffy’s death – or distribute her meager assets. So all Buffy had to deal with was settling back into her old life, going through the motions as best she could:

Ah, Buffy and the Scooby Gang. It wasn’t a perfect show but it was a great show and many of its alum have gone on to make other great TV shows and movies. But there will never be another Buffy–she can only come back from the dead so many times! Next time, I’ll have to figure out what happens when a vampire regains his soul. Is there anyone tracking that?

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Jessica has been litigating business and IP disputes for the past decade. During that time, she’s dealt with clients, lawyers, and judges who have varying degrees of appreciation for the challenges of managing discovery in an electronic age. Until the fall of 2011, she was an attorney at a large, Texas-based law firm, where she represented clients in state and federal court nationwide. That fall, she made a long-desired move back to the Midwest and is now a partner at Hansen Reynolds Dickinson Crueger LLC, a litigation boutique based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she continues to litigate while also consulting with business and law firms on e-discovery issues (before, during, and after litigation arises).