The wife of missing adventurer Steve Fossett has asked a court to declare him dead

In Florida a death certificate is prima facie proof of the “fact, place, date, and time of death as well as the identity of the decedent.” § 731.103(2), Fla. Stat. (2007). It is not conclusive proof of any fact related to the death.  If insurance proceeds are at stake, you'll need a lot more than a death certificate to prove the insured is dead [click here and here for real-life examples of this point].

In a CNN article entitled Wife of missing adventurer wants him declared dead, we get a glimpse of the quantity and quality of the circumstantial evidence Steve Fossett's wife will be submitting in Illinois to legally establish the fact of his death.  I am assuming insurance proceeds are at stake in this case.  Excerpts from the linked-to CNN article demonstrate that Mrs. Fossett is going far beyond simply filing a copy of his death certificate:

"As difficult as it is for me to reach this conclusion, I no longer hold out any hope that Steve has survived," wrote Peggy V. Fossett in court documents filed Monday with the Cook County [Illinois] Circuit Court.

She asked that the will of her husband of 38 years be admitted to probate.

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"No one involved in the search holds out any hope that Fossett is still alive," the petition said.

Rick Rains, a sheriff's supervisor of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, said Fossett's plane was last spotted at 11 a.m. less than 20 miles from the ranch's airport. "Given the timeline and the sighting of Fossett's plane, I believe he was within 20 to 25 miles of the ranch when he crashed," Rains said.

But, he noted, "the terrain is very difficult to search, with many areas where the crevices, deep ravines and closely grown trees make it impossible to see from the air what is on the ground."

"If Fossett was physically able to find water to survive on in the Nevada desert, he would have been physically capable of signaling searchers, by doing something as simple as crafting a large X of sticks or rocks, or by starting a signal fire," Rains said.

In affidavits supporting his wife's petition, Fossett's doctor described the 63-year-old man as physically and mentally fit.

Robert Keilholtz, a captain in the California Civil Air Patrol who was involved in the search, noted that the difficulty in finding wreckage was underscored by the fact that World War II-era plane wreckage was discovered last spring in the mountain range.

In the search for Fossett, wreckage from eight other crashes was discovered, one of them from the 1960s, the lawyers said.

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Russell R. Winer - November 28, 2007 6:51 PM

I recently filed a petition under FS 731.103(3) and obtained an order determining an absent person was deceased. It's an interesting process where the Judge signs the d/c in the space that the doctor would usually sign. When the d/c is issued, it states "presumptive" in bold letters on the top left.

Paul Stokes - November 29, 2007 8:37 AM

F.S. Sec. 731.103(3), which deals with the 5 year presumption of death rule, is worth considering in this context. (See its counterpart in the Probate Rules at Rule 5.101(e)). We had a case in our office several years ago, not involving life insurance, where the non-absent spouse, our client, died after after the absent spouse disappeared but before the lapse of 5 years. We had two questions (1) was it possible to have a ruling that the absent spouse was dead before the expiration of 5 years, and (2) would a finding of death relate back to the date of disappearance rather than to the date of the finding? If the finding of death meant that the absent spouse died at the date of the finding, it would mean she survived our client. Her estate would get his estate, and her beneficiaries the wealth of both. But if she was ruled to have predeceased him, he would have inherited her estate, and a different set of beneficiaries would have received both estates at his subsequent death. The two sets of beneficiaries settled.

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