Florida Statute 731.103(3) creates a presumption of death if a person is missing for five years. Once this happens, the person’s estate can be probated and their assets can be distributed. However one does not always have to wait for five years to pass. With enough circumstantial evidence, a person can be presumed dead before the five years is up. In an interesting Florida case involving a West Palm Beach family, the West Palm Beach Court of Appeals dealt directly with this issue.
In the mid 1990’s a wife attempted to have the court declare her husband deceased before he was missing for five years. The lower courts said that the courts could not do so until five years had passed. On appeal the court found that the wife had presented enough circumstantial evidence to allow the court to declare the husband deceased and allow for probate of his assets.
Her husband had been a crew-member of the cruise ship, Club Royale. As Hurricane Erin approached on August 2, 1995, the captain of the ship took it out of port and tried to ride the hurricane out in the open sea off the coast of Cape Canaveral. In the hurricane, the ship capsized and sank. The United States Coast Guard conducted an extensive search by aircraft and surface vessels to search for survivors for four days. It combed over 41,000 nautical miles of open-ocean and found eight crewmen alive on two separate life rafts. It recovered the body of a ninth crew-member on a third raft. Eventually the Coast Guard located 27 of the 30 life rafts from the ship. It found no trace of the husband or the Captain of the ship.
The appellate court found that it was known that the cruise ship sank during a hurricane, and that the husband was not among the survivors. The court thought this was sufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that in this case the husband had died at sea.
If you living in the Miami-Dade, Broward County, West Palm Beach area and need help establishing probate of a missing or deceased person, the experienced attorneys at Chepenik Trushin can help. Please feel free to contact us for an initial consultation.
Florida Statutes Woods v. Estate of Woods, 681 So. 2d 903 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996)