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Context: I am writing an urban fantasy story in which a man dies, is declared dead, and comes back to life via supernatural means on the autopsy table. The existence of the supernatural is not common knowledge in the universe of the story, and his un-death is completely inexplicable as far as medical science and the law is concerned; nonetheless, a legally dead man ends up being alive.

What kind of procedures would be necessary to undo the legal death? What happens to his property (note: the reanimated character is a young man with no written will)? If he's a renter, how long will it take for his landlord to push all his stuff out and welcome a new tenant? How much paperwork does he have to fill out?

Note: the story is set in the USA, and tentatively set in the state of California in the late 2010s.

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    Look, I do want to clarify 1 thing: you do NOT need supernatural means to have someone come back to life on the autopsy table. It happened to a Spanish prisoner in 2018: newsweek.com/…
    – Nzall
    Jun 22 at 9:54
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    @Clockwork In this case the prisoner just had a condition that made it so he appeared dead, at least dead enough to fool 3 different doctors.
    – Nzall
    Jun 22 at 10:00
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    It's not that uncommon occurrence (even without the supernatural). I.e. when some person goes missing, later they find a corpse and neighbors/sm1 confirms them dead, after which the "deceased" safely return from wherever they've went to find their property being taken away.
    – Dan M.
    Jun 22 at 12:15
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    Not strictly relevant because you're seeing your story in the US, but interesting: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Jun 22 at 13:54
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What kind of procedures would be necessary to undo the legal death? What happens to his property (note: the reanimated character is a young man with no written will)? If he's a renter, how long will it take for his landlord to push all his stuff out and welcome a new tenant? How much paperwork does he have to fill out?

If the person is on the autopsy table, while he may have technically been legally dead, the person's death certificate has probably not even been issued yet, since normally an autopsy is done, in part, to determine a cause of death for purposes of preparing a death certificate.

Normally, an autopsy is only prepared when the cause of death is uncertain or needs to be documented for legal reasons (e.g. an accidental or potentially criminal death or one that is just unexplained), and the need for one postpones the preparation of a death certificate. If the cause of death is self-evident and there is no indication of foul play, an autopsy isn't done and the preparation of a death certificate proceeds more quickly.

In other words, while he may be "legally" dead (defined as discontinuation of the function of certain bodily processes like brain activity and heartbeat and breathing), he very likely isn't yet "bureaucratically" dead.

You can be "legally" dead days before anyone even discovers that you have died, with the time of your death determined only retroactively, but that doesn't have any practical effect until someone discovers it and it makes its way through the bureaucratic and court process.

It takes a few days after a death for a probate proceeding to establish death, heirship and the validity of any will (many states have a 120 hour minimum waiting period after a date of death and most autopsies are within 72 hours). Even if a probate proceeding had been commenced, a simple affidavit or notice that someone was not, in fact, dead would cause the case to be summarily dismissed and it is unlikely that much would have happened in the court process since then.

With older people, one of the fastest agencies to act is the Social Security Administration discontinuing benefits. But a younger person wouldn't have gotten those to start with, so that wouldn't be a factor.

Life insurance companies normally won't pay until a final post-autopsy death certificate with cause of death is in place (so they can look for fraud in the life insurance application relative to the cause of death stated).

It would be very usual for a landlord to take action sooner than the month after learning of the death, and often the estate will keep in a lease in force much longer. Next of kin may have removed some valuables prior to any official declaration, and while most people would promptly return them upon learning of the "mistake", a few items might not be recovered.

The final death certificate would probably never be prepared. A preliminary death certificate might be quashed as erroneous and not filed with the Vital Statistics Department of the State Department of Health, by the preparing party, through a simple, oral, in office instruction to the person in the coroner's office who handles those filings.

Since there isn't a formal judicial declaration of death or a final death certificate, simply informing an agency or person that received a preliminary notice that it was in error, perhaps by letter or email, would suffice. Even if a final death certificate had just issued, the person who filed it could probably fill out a simple correction form so soon (probably just a matter of hours) after it was filed. It wouldn't be that disruptive.

The messy cases are when there has been a legal declaration of death and then months of actions have been taken in reliance on the determination that someone is dead.

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  • This conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Pat W.
    Jun 23 at 13:02
  • Seems like this could be a frame challenge answer, maybe note it as such? Although, I think this entire question is better suited to world building, where the note would be "make them come back to life sometime later, in a situation that doesn't require an autopsy in the first place" - at least I think that may help the author achieve their plot devices
    – TCooper
    Jun 23 at 22:08
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    @TCooper Not clear from the question is the author wants this to be a problem, or is just trying to avoid a plot hole.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 23 at 23:08
  • Hmm, good call. I'm caught in an assumption. Maybe why I'm better in world building, it's all made up and the points don't matter.
    – TCooper
    Jun 23 at 23:10
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There have been cases where a legally dead person tried to come back from the dead, such as the case of Donald Miller in Hancock County OH, who was declared presumptively dead under ORC 2121.01. According to the news media, his lawsuit to undo the action failed because the law provides no provision for "taking it back", once 3 years have passed after the legal declaration of death. Under that law, all of his legal interests would have been disposed of.

What it would mean to "undo" his death would be to declare that the distribution of his property was not lawful, therefore he still owned his house, car, investments and so on. Therefore the executor of the estate would be (potentially) "on the hook": or, the brokerage firm that sold those shares would be on the hook because the owner was not "actually dead". But this won't happen in Ohio, because the law says that "The death of such presumed decedent shall for all purposes under the law of this state be regarded as having occurred as of the date of such decree". In other words, the law treats such a declaration of death as final (after the 3 year "uncertainty" period).

There is even less law addressing magical changes in death-status. In Ohio, pursuant to state supreme court rules every county has rules for probate, such as these for Lawrence County where under rule 60.2 "The applicant must file a true and accurate copy of the decedent’s death certificate with the application for authority to administer the estate". The local registrar of vital statistics legally records the fact of death, because the person who legally disposes of the remains supplies a certificate, and that certificate is presented to "the attending physician of the decedent, the coroner, or the medical examiner". Theoretically, that person knows the technical part of ORC 2108.40, which says

An individual is dead if the individual has sustained either irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions or irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain, including the brain stem, as determined in accordance with accepted medical standards. If the respiratory and circulatory functions of a person are being artificially sustained, under accepted medical standards a determination that death has occurred is made by a physician by observing and conducting a test to determine that the irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain has occurred.

A physician who makes a determination of death in accordance with this section and accepted medical standards is not liable for damages in any civil action or subject to prosecution in any criminal proceeding for the physician's acts or the acts of others based on that determination.

Any person who acts in good faith in reliance on a determination of death made by a physician in accordance with this section and accepted medical standards is not liable for damages in any civil action or subject to prosecution in any criminal proceeding for the person's actions.

So as an executor, you would not be liable for the damage (trespass on property interest) arising from an erroneous medical declaration of death, and you can't get your car back.

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    "There is even less law addressing magical changes in death-status." Who would have guessed?
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 21 at 22:09
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    This was a really great read here! If the same would be the case, I think Maxims of Jurisprudence would be the recourse in pleading to the court under Section 3523. “For every wrong there is a remedy.”
    – kisspuska
    Jun 21 at 22:17
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    From a legislative perspective, the resolution probably is somewhere in government reimbursement. When the government relies on the standards of medicine, it makes an admission that is, within its on domain, unable to determine death in a fail-proof manner. And the toll is pretty high for someone falling a victim of it. The show Silicon Valley had a situation where one of the characters “bureaucratically” kills someone and takes his house. It’s horrible. There has to be a process, but for the very few mistakes, there should be recourse too. It would cost a lot to the government.
    – kisspuska
    Jun 21 at 22:22
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    While I think it is ok that the distribution of his property cannot be undone, what about other legal issues, like applying for passport, retirement even signing legal contracts. Can the 'death' status be revoked for these things? Also wouldnt people go free if they kill him (because he is legally dead?), so these things shd be possible to undo/or reinstate his aliveness.
    – lalala
    Jun 22 at 18:14
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    Rights to a pension would be interesting.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 22 at 22:08

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