So normally the police or hospital is called and people get a death certificate.

If someone disappears with no report, what happens? Is a death certificate ever issued?

  • 19
    If they die without a trace, you wouldn't really know that they died.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 19, 2021 at 14:14

3 Answers 3


In lieu of a death certificate, a person can be declared dead by a court with probate jurisdiction under circumstances outlined under state statutes. Usually this is a combination of circumstances that make the likelihood of death nearly certain and/or the passage of a certain period of time (five years in California) without a sign of the person after duly diligent efforts have been made to locate them.

In the meantime, a court can establish a conservatorship or receivership for the missing person's assets to preserve them.

Detailed statutory citations for California are found here.


Community Service Announcement

A person going missing is serious. Many thousands of people disappear every year. In most cases they return or make contact with friends or family after a short while, however, a significant number are never heard from again.

It is a MYTH that you need to wait 24 hours before telling the police of a missing person. Alert the police as soon as possible.

The quicker the authorities start to look for them the more likely there will be a happy outcome.

Presumed death

All jurisdictions have rules on when a person can be presumed dead, that is, a death certificate is issued notwithstanding the absence of remains. In the this is a matter for state law unless there is a reason for the Federal government to be involved (e.g. military personnel missing in combat).

In most, a court or the registrar can decide that a person is probably dead and issue a death certificate/grant probate.

People who are known to have been in the area where a tragedy occurred may be declared dead shortly after that tragedy even though no remains are found. For example, people on the Titanic who were not rescued by the Carpathia, people in the 9-11 attacks, the people on MH17 were all issued death certificates shortly after the respective tragedies.

Alternatively, at common law (codified by statute in some jurisdictions) a missing person may be declared dead if:

  • The person has been missing for an extended period, most commonly seven years
  • Their absence must have been continuous and inexplicable (e.g. the person did not say they had found a new job and were moving far away)
  • There must have been no communication from the party with those people most likely to hear from them during the period the person has been missing
  • There must have been a diligent but unsuccessful search for the person and/or diligent but unsuccessful inquiry into their whereabouts.

Coming back

There are interesting legal implications of a person who has been declared dead coming back but they are outside the scope of this question. Please ask another question if you're interested.

  • 3
    @JSisis then they are still alive. People are only declared dead because someone wants or needs that declaration for some reason: to deal with assets or debts or claim life insurance etc.
    – Dale M
    Jul 19, 2021 at 7:35
  • 10
    @JSisis Not really, humanity has lasted 200,000 without writing down everyone who died.
    – Dale M
    Jul 19, 2021 at 8:34
  • 4
    @JSisis What particular consequences of not issuing a death certificate are you concerned about?
    – Sneftel
    Jul 19, 2021 at 10:06
  • 7
    I have been told that the idea that you have to wait 24 hours before declaring someone missing was a throwback to the days before cellphones. Police people realised a lot of times people just went somewhere without telling people and the idea was just to wait a little while and see if your son did not just go away with his gf without telling anyone. These days with cellphones being ubiquitous if someone cannot be contacted there is usually a reason for it.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 19, 2021 at 14:45
  • 2
    @NeilMeyer No - it never existed IRL. It was a convenient plot device in books and TV.
    – Dale M
    Jul 19, 2021 at 22:25

If someone disappears with no report, what happens?

  • Nothing, as no one knows about it to do anything and the law does not make any provisions for a lack of reporting in these circumstances.

Is a death certificate ever issued?

  • No, as the authorities are not aware that the person has disappeared / died. Again, the law does not make any provisions for unknown or unreported disappearances or deaths.

As for the OP's comment "they just never get a certificate until 100 years later when someone steals their SSN"

  • Unless the holder's death has been reported the HMRC, an unsed National Insurance Number (NINO) lies dormant on their database until it is resurrected by, for example, an employer reporting a new employee or someone making a claim for a tax refund. HMRC then make enquiries with the employee / claimant to ascertain their employment history to make sure there are no duplicate records and to collect / repay the right amount of tax. These enquiries should identify any misuse of the NINO, but the system is not infallible and criminals are canny. But who knows what with happen on 19/07/2121?
  • 1
    I've seen multiple news accounts of of people found dead/mummified in their house or apartment a year or more after death. One example is Joyce Vincent, who died in London.
    – RonJohn
    Jul 19, 2021 at 15:29
  • 3
    Yes, but they no longer have died "without a trace" so presumably a death certificate been issued and a relevant report made to the coroner.
    – user35069
    Jul 19, 2021 at 15:36
  • 1
    Sigh... I was agreeing with your "If someone dissapears[sic] with no report, what happens?" point.
    – RonJohn
    Jul 19, 2021 at 15:51

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