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Millions of people around the world provably and literally vanish at exactly the same moment. Their bodies simply no longer exist instantaneously. In many cases, this is witnessed, quite often by large numbers of people.

Are the people who disappeared considered "dead" legally, e.g. for the purpose of succession or vital records? Are death certificates issued? I'm interested in answers for any jurisdictions.

I'm interested in cases where there is an existing law that clearly applies to this scenario, not in speculation as to how courts will rule or what new laws legislatures might pass in jurisdictions that have no relevant laws.

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    This isn’t a legal question because no laws exist that cover such a scenario. Mar 8, 2023 at 6:19
  • @MichaelHall so any answer would just be conjecture as to how courts would rule in a scenario where there is no relevant law?
    – Someone
    Mar 8, 2023 at 6:33
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    Any answer based on current legal systems would be academic anyway, because when this happens, there will be an entirely new government established quite quickly.
    – Someone
    Mar 8, 2023 at 6:34
  • 1
    Related: Meta post re fantastical questions
    – user35069
    Mar 8, 2023 at 8:43
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    More of a question for What-if?, but IIRC, it has been answered before.
    – PMF
    Mar 8, 2023 at 10:22

3 Answers 3

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In (*) (and I would guess all over the world) there are no special laws for people vanishing in any science fiction/movie style. The general laws about missing persons would apply.

Without any body or other evidence to prove a person is dead, they are not dead in the eyes of the law.

To be missing and later declared dead legally, you have to be "verschollen" first. This is what "Verschollenheitsgesetz (VerschG)" is about.

Verschollen ist, wessen Aufenthalt während längerer Zeit unbekannt ist, ohne daß Nachrichten darüber vorliegen, ob er in dieser Zeit noch gelebt hat oder gestorben ist, sofern nach den Umständen hierdurch ernstliche Zweifel an seinem Fortleben begründet werden.

Translated:

A missing person is one whose whereabouts are unknown for a long period of time without any information as to whether he or she was still alive or died during that time, provided that the circumstances give rise to serious doubts as to his or her survival.

A person that is considered "verschollen" can be pronounced dead by a court. This is only possible after 10 years of being "verschollen", 5 years if the person was 80 or older and cannot be done at all if the person is not at least 25.

It is not enough that the missing person did not communicate. For example you cannot have someone pronounced dead, just because they left the country and did not contact you for years. There has to be some indication that they may indeed be dead or at least your good faith efforts to find them where not successful.

There are also shorter periods for special cases: People that went missing during a war can be pronounced dead a year after peace, a person lost at sea in a shipwreck after 6 months, a person missing in a plane crash after three months. All these factors make it more likely the person is actually dead.

So by those laws, there will be no shortage of work for judges 10 years after the event.


Now, if I had to speculate, I would say that there would be a specific rule for this global event, not unlike the exceptions listed before. But that is just as much science fiction as the example.


(*) This should be very similar in , since the laws quoted above are originally from 1939, when Germany had annexed Austria. Later after the liberation, both countries kept them. Probably under slightly different names, but generally they should still work very similar.

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  • Does this apply even if a witness saw the person disappear (not leave, but actually vanish)?
    – Someone
    Mar 8, 2023 at 6:38
  • Also, some major changes will happen afterwards, so any current laws will be moot ten years after the event. Current governments will not exist, at least without radical changes, even a year afterwards.
    – Someone
    Mar 8, 2023 at 6:40
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    Unless there is a solid, proven explanation what happens to people that "disappear" and that explanation is "they die", then yes. By law, it does not matter if the person disappeared into thin air, or took the bus to Mexico.
    – nvoigt
    Mar 8, 2023 at 6:41
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    Well, whatever happens from that event onward is pure speculation. I can only tell you which of todays laws would apply. I have no idea what people would do with those laws. Whether they would extend them, override them, drop them, is a fictional future.
    – nvoigt
    Mar 8, 2023 at 6:44
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    Except the person's clothes might be left where the person was. I'm not sure about that.
    – Someone
    Mar 8, 2023 at 15:49
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Almost certainly, there would be special laws to handle this situation retroactively.

It is a principle of any reasonable legal system that criminal laws cannot be applied retroactively, nulla poena sine lege. But this is not a criminal matter. Consider how many countries which had existing laws for pandemics and quarantine situations nevertheless amended or added extra legislation to cover the specifics of COVID. Those laws did apply to people who had been infected prior to the enactment of the new laws ...

When those laws are drafted, in the months and years after the event, legislators would consider the likelihood of a return, which depends on the prevailing scientific theories about the cause. (Or religious theories? Sounds a bit like the rapture.)

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  • "Those laws did apply to people who had been infected prior to the enactment" although to be fair they applied positive exceptions from otherwise negative effects of laws to those infected previously. I think it would have been a much bigger issue if these laws had applied negative measures, so had actually been "poena".
    – nvoigt
    Mar 8, 2023 at 7:58
  • @nvoigt, what I mean is that they applied to people infected at the time when the law came into effect. One could not say "sure, but I was positive yesterday, and yesterday there was no mandatory quarantine. So I'm not in quarantine now."
    – o.m.
    Mar 8, 2023 at 9:09
  • Well, you were not "sentenced to quarantine" based on the fact you had had COVID 3 months ago. Quarantine was based on the fact that since you had COVID yesterday, you still have it. Right now. After the law takes effect.
    – nvoigt
    Mar 8, 2023 at 10:47
  • @nvoigt, well, yes, and that is why a law redefining the status of those "missing by UFO" could likewise happen after the disappearance. Countries would not be restricted on missing persons laws at the time, and millions are more than enough to trigger legislative action.
    – o.m.
    Mar 8, 2023 at 11:48
  • Any legislation would have to be passed quickly, because a new government will be taking over soon, likely in a few days. Also, in some legislatures, there may no longer be a quorum due to the disappearances.
    – Someone
    Mar 8, 2023 at 15:51
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People disappear all the time

Usually not so abruptly or in such numbers but the usual rules apply.

This was addressed in What happens if someone dies without a trace?

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