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Legally Dead
Usually the result of Never Found the Body. The family/friends/authorities decide that a missing person is indeed deceased, and life can go on. Often leads to Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated. Can also lead to Finally Found the Body

This can happen because the person:
  • has been away for a long time (whether on a long journey, stranded, or captured).
  • is the victim of a bureaucratic screwup.
  • has been declared dead due to the nefarious schemes of others.
  • has disappeared deliberately to hide.
  • has disappeared after some disaster or other great peril.
  • has seemingly vanished into thin air with no evidence whatsoever that they're amongst the living.
  • has died, and formally it's enough even though they got better later (opposite of the Revival Loophole).

Note that in the fifth and sixth types of situations, it's likely (and often indeed the case) that these people really are dead.

See also Undead Tax Exemption.

Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • This happens to the main cast of Fairy Tail when Tenrou Island is attacked by Acnologia. They turn up alive...but when they do, seven years have passed.
  • This happens to the entire crew of the Macross in Super Dimension Fortress Macross after the disastrous space fold out to Pluto. After not having any contact with the ship for months, the governments of Earth declared them deceased. This made things a little awkward when they returned, especially since none of the crew's former nations were willing to accept them back.

    Comic Books 
  • Green Arrow: The origin story since The Silver Age of Comic Books features Oliver Queen becoming stranded on an island & becoming a skilled archer as a means of survival. Originally, Ollie merely fell off a cruise ship; Post-Crisis, this was amended to Ollie being drunk at the time; and was later amended to being shot off the ship & becoming an archer to shut down a drug ring on the island.

    Film 
  • Batman Begins: Popped up, when Bruce Wayne disappears for years in order to train in remote monasteries, etc. When he returns, Alfred mentions that bringing him back from the dead will have some legal implications...
    • Namely, one of the executives at Wayne Enterprises had Bruce being Legally Dead so the company would become open capital.
  • Cast Away: Happens to Chuck Noland.
  • Move Over Darling: "Five years to the day after his wife Ellen (Doris Day) disappeared in the sea after a plane crash, lawyer husband Nicholas Arden (James Garner) has her declared legally dead, remarries and sets off to Monterey with new wife Bianca (Polly Bergen). The same morning, Ellen arrives home after being rescued by the Navy from a desert island and follows to try and prevent the honeymoon developing further." This was likely a remake of...
    • ... the 1940 RKO Screwball Comedy My Favorite Wife, in which wife Ellie Arden (Irene Dunne) has been shipwrecked for seven years on a desert island-coincidentally with handsome Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott)-so husband Nick Arden (Cary Grant) has her declared legally dead, and marries elegant Ice Queen Bianca (Gail Patrick). Ellie and Stephen are rescued and return on the very day of the wedding — but after the ceremony itself. Hilarity Ensues. Both films were ultimately based on a poem, "Enoch Arden," by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
  • In Hackers a competition between Dade and Kate to mess around with Secret Service Special Agent Richard Gill as much as possible is held, and Dade alters records to show that Gill has been legally declared dead.
  • In the horror film Absentia, Tricia's husband is declared legally dead after being missing for seven years. Then he comes back.
  • The movie Double Jeopardy deals with a man who staged his death AND framed his wife for his murder.

    Folklore 
  • Robin Hood: Happens in many of his appearances. Usually, his extended absence causes the Sheriff of Nottingham to seize his estate, which is why he takes to the forest.

    Literature 
  • The Hobbit: At the end, Bilbo discovers he is this. His relatives, particularly the Sackville-Baggins, are not terribly thrilled to see him alive again and give back his Big Fancy Hobbit-hole.
  • Tunnel in the Sky: Rod and Roy are quietly declared dead and mourned in a private ceremony after they're a month late from a scouting mission.
  • Played for dark comedy in Catch-22. 'Doc' Daneeka was in the habit of having pilots add his name to their plane's flight roster on occasion, so that he would qualify for flight pay. He never really was on any of the flights. Then a plane that has him listed on the flight roster crashes into a mountain. 'Doc' is declared legally dead by the Army, and he can't even get anyone to listen when he tries to explain that he's not dead, because as far as the Army is concerned he's dead.
  • Inverted with Commissar Ciaphas Cain, who has been erroneously declared dead on so many occasions that the military bureaucracy has a standing order to ignore all reports of his death and keep him on the active duty roster. This continued even after his actual death (and burial with full military honors).
  • Lemony Snicket apparently was thought to be dead: his obituary was in the paper. While we don't know if this was a nefarious scheme, it probably was, considering the themes of the books.
  • In Ashes of Victory, the eponymous character is declared dead after an enemy nation (who had indeed captured her previously) fakes her execution. Upon her return, the situation is milked for every last ounce of comedy as Honor tries in vain to get all of the memorials, statues, and starships named after her torn down or renamed.
  • In Ice Station, it turns out that Scarecrow has been officially killed in a training accident along with the rest of his unit. It seems that somebody's trying to cover up his mission...
  • Michael has Rosamund declare dead in the Knight and Rogue Series so his father will stop trying to have her brought home and she can marry her true love.
  • Hotblack Desiato, who's "spending a year dead for tax purposes" in the second The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, qualifies as a combination of #4 and #7—he's hiding out (from the tax bureau) by being both legally dead and kind of physically dead (but able to interact with his environment using psychkinesis), and the plan is to get better later.
  • In The House of the Spirits Uncle Marcos is declared dead after the wreckage of his experimental plane and allegedly some remains are found in the mountains. However, he turns up alive several days later, leading to a bureaucratic headache as his family attempts to have his legal death reversed.
  • In The Dresden Files book Ghost Story, we learn that this has happened to Dresden after he was shot and his body fell into Lake Michigan at the end of Changes. Technically speaking he is dead, they just Never Found the Body. This is upgraded to Only Mostly Dead in the ending, when it turns out Mab has had his body preserved and healed and is just waiting for his spirit to come back into it.
  • In Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Frank Bennett simply vanishes from the scene. His truck turns up later, revealing the fact that he's been murdered, but the judge declares it an accidental death due to lack of evidence and the fact that the judge personally hated Frank.
  • In the book The Woman in the Wall, the titular protagonist's father has vanished and been declared legally dead, but it's implied that he's simply hiding in the walls of his workplace in the same way the protagonist does in the walls of her house.
  • Aignan, Conson's son, from A Void went missing thirty years before the story in Oxford.
  • The Discworld city of Ankh-Morpork has a similar ruling, although the consequences are not for the person who died. People who commit murder are hanged. If their victim is only briefly dead, they will only be briefly hanged.
    • Later volumes expanded on the "briefly" part: if the victim lives, but had to be revived by an Igor, it still counts as Murder, rather than Attempted Murder.
  • Harry Potter: Peter Pettigrew faked his death to escape punishment.
    • And, of course, the crux of the first half of the series is that the general wizarding populace assumes this of Voldemort. The main characters, of course, know better, and the Ministry's initial refusal to back off this claim causes some major problems in the second half of the series.
  • On Person of Interest a real estate developer went into business with some shady investors. When the market went sour, they decided to kill the man and his family and then force the man's brother-in-law as the executor of the estate to transfer all the properties to them. Their hitman makes it look like the man killed his wife and daughter while sailing on a yacht and then killed himself. The girl's body was not discovered but everyone assumed that it went overboard and sunk in the sea. Two years later all the legal wrangling is over, the girl is legally dead and the bad guys are about to get their money. Then it comes to light that the hitman Would Not Hurt A Child and the girl is still alive. Since this would completely derail their scheme, the bad guys hire a hitman who Would Hurt a Child and send him to kill the girl before the authorities find out about her being still alive.

    Live Action TV 
  • Arrow: Similarly to Smallville altering aspects of the origin, this shows changes Green Arrow's origin to feature the Queen family's private yacht being destroyed in stormy weather (with sabotage apparently playing a part, too), but maintains Oliver surviving thanks to a life raft eventually taking him to a secluded island. The show actually shows Oliver having to go to court so a judge can formally reverse his Legally Dead status. His family's lawyers must have had a field day dealing with the legal ramification of having a heir to the Queen family fortune reappear.
  • Baby, I'm Back: In 1978, this short-lived sitcom featured Demond Wilson (better known as the second half of the title pair of Sanford and Son) as a man who abandons his family, and returns after having been declared dead to try to reconcile with wife and children, his efforts being thwarted by his Deadpan Snarker former mother-in-law. It was presumably meant to be a modernized reworking of My Favorite Wife/Move Over Darling.
  • Blake's 7: Travis, aided and abetted by Servalan. Given that the reason he needs to resort to this trope is Sevalan herself getting him court-martialed and sentenced to death after he screws up one time too many, this must be one of the strangest Pet the Dog moments in television history.
  • Burn Notice has Larry Sizemore, a.k.a. "Dead Larry".
  • Doctor Who: The end of the episode "Doomsday" opens with Rose Tyler talking about the day she died, and at the very end of the episode, she is permanently trapped in an alternate universe with her mother, boyfriend and Alternate Universe!father. From the perspective of this universe's government, she has technically disappeared without any trace, and has been declared one of the victims of that day.
  • Haven: In the season 3 finale, The Barn vanishes while Duke Crocker is in it. In the season 4 premiere, he reappears, but finds six months have passed and everyone thought he was dead. It causes a few problems, like him getting arrested and accused of being an impostor.
  • Mash: One fourth season episode involves Hawkeye being mistakenly declared dead due to a paperwork mix-up.
  • Revolution: Rachel Matheson. Episode 2 reveals she had been kept prisoner by Monroe. The fall finale reveals that even Miles, who personally processed her when she turned herself in to the Monroe Militia, assumed that she had since died.
  • An episode of Night Court dealt with a soldier who had been declared dead and came home to find out his wife had remarried to a total nerd.
  • On The Pretender, this is a big part of Mr. Lyle's backstory. He killed his best friend and chopped his head off, then left the body in the bed of his abusive father's pickup truck. Even though the authorities could not positively ID the body, it was assumed to be him. His father was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, while his mother went insane from the ordeal.
  • Rome: Lucius Vorenus's wife believes him dead after ten years campaigning with Caesar.
  • Smallville: Keeps Green Arrow's origin mostly intact, except instead of falling off a cruise ship, Ollie's yacht was attacked by a group of pirates and he escaped by activating a life raft before washing ashore on a nearby island.
  • The Adventures of Superman: Attempted in one episode of the old TV show. A wanted criminal seals himself in a huge lead-lined metal room for seven years so that he can be declared legally dead and emerge a free man. He has a clock inside that keeps time from a radio signal from a nearby military base. Superman gets the authorities to speed the clock up by a tiny bit, so when he finally emerges it turns out he's 10 minutes too early.
  • The Trouble With Larry: Short-lived 1993 sitcom wherein Larry (Bronson Pinchot post-Perfect Strangers) had been abducted and presumed eaten by apes 10 years previously; his wife has since remarried and had a son, then Larry shows up ready to retake his place as head of the family.
  • Babylon 5: Captain Sheridan was presumed to have died on Z'Ha'Dum at the end of the third season, a presumption reinforced somewhat by the fact that he most likely did do just that. He is brought back thanks to the efforts of a Sufficiently Advanced Alien, and returns to rally the League races against the Shadows and Vorlons. Bit of a downplayed example, as the fourth season reveals that nobody on Earth ever heard about his death anyways, thanks to a government-enforced communications blackout.

    Video Game 
  • Final Fantasy XII
    • Dalmascan Captain Basch is framed for regicide by the invading Archadian conspirators —including his own twin brother, who committed the murder— and the population of Dalmasca is assured that the traitor was captured and executed. Only the first part was true, however, and he lives to help the Princess reclaim her throne.
    • In fact, Basch's "Legally Dead" status is deliberately exploited by the party in order to draw Marquis Ondore's attention, at which point they send out Vaan to claim that "[He is] Captain Basch!"
    • By the end of the game, since Basch is still legally declared dead by Dalmasca, he uses this chance to take up the guise and identity of Judge Magister Gabranth in his brother's name, in order to protect the young emperor Larsa (and, by extension, the fragile peace between Dalmasca, Rozarria, and Archades).
  • Subverted in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. It appears that Zak Gramarye merely disappeared to remove his partner from suspicion. The rights to the Gramarye magic act would automatically transfer to him in seven years according to this trope. The subversion comes when he turns out to be Shadi Engimar, the murder victim in the first case.
  • In Wing Commander Prophecy, Commodore Blair is lost when the Nephilim wormhole gate he's seeking to shut down collapses, leaving his fate uncertain. In the sequel Secret Ops, background fiction for the game says that Blair was declared legally dead.
  • Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII-2 Everyone thinks she is dead but Serah.
  • At the beginning of Mass Effect 2 Commander Shepard has the Normandy blown out from under him/her, suffers a suit puncture and asphyxiates, then partially burns up on reentry into a planet's atmosphere and crashes into its surface. After Cerberus revives him/her two years later, on his/her first trip to the Citadel s/he discovers that the Systems Alliance and Citadel Council have, unsurprisingly, declared him/her KIA in the interim, and Shepard has to talk to a C-Sec officer to get his/her IDs reactivated. This also leads to some Funny Moments when the Citadel advertising can't quite figure out what to do with an undead Spectre.
    Technician: Sorry about this, sir/ma'am. Our system seems to think that you're, ah, dead.
    Shepard: I was only mostly dead. Try finding that option on government paperwork.
  • The basis of the first quest in Escape from Monkey Island, due to Guybrush and governor Elaine spending too long on their honeymoon (combined with their pirate constituency's short attention span).
    Elaine: I'm going down to city hall to see about getting declared un-dead.
    Guybrush: Won't that make you a flesh-eating zombie?

    Web Animation 
  • Zero Punctuation's review for Peggle, regarding its addictiveness, Yahtzee claims that he started playing around noon and emerged sometime later to find that the authorities had declared him Legally Dead.

    Webcomics 
  • Tower of God: Through a rather convoluted plan of Yu Han-Sung's, 25th Baam has been declared as deceased during a test. Matter of fact is that He was ambushed by Rachel and dropped down the drain, literally.
  • Girl Genius
    • While Death Is Cheap isn't quite in effect, resurrection is possible. So the noble families have a rule in place that if you die, you're out of the line of succession, whether you get zapped back or not. Of course, every so often a blue-blood gets resurrected and hopes no one finds out, but the local Reasonable Authority Figure/Evil Overlord always does, and quietly blackmails them with it.
    • Speaking of which, said Evil Overlord is the result of all three sons of the Wulfenbach family dying in a lab accident, getting stitched back together, and reanimated, which means he's probably not even human in a legal sense, and definitely isn't allowed to rule. He also has the most guns.
    • The leader of an enemy army gets killed and then reanimated to be brought back to life by Klaus. For his safety, his name was released as one of the dead. He's initially annoyed—none of his Rich Bitch friends will be willing to communicate with him, his wife will be even worse, and and his lands will go to his insufferable nephew—until he has an epiphany and realizes that he hated all of them anyway.
      Selinkov: Say—can I get a brass plate that says "Reanimated Abomination of Science" bolted to my forehead?
      Dr. Sun: Er, perhaps?

    Websites 
  • Fanfiction.net: Often a Subverted Trope on the Internet, where a writer who has returned from a long hiatus will remark that they're not dead, as evidenced by the update. This is only slightly justified, as most of these people post under a pseudonym and are unknown outside the Internet, so if Schedule Slip means they go a long time without posting anything, then for all their readers know, they could have died in the interim. Played straight in a couple of cases, though the only ones that have been verified were in those where a relative verified things, and most were in short order.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender : Aang disappeared for 100 years while he was stuck in an iceberg, and was generally thought to be dead. He wasn't exactly stranded or captured, but he was stuck...
  • Family Guy: Peter was declared legally dead when he and the guys were lost at sea, and Lois married Brian in order to have a breadwinner in the house.
    • In another episode, Peter declared himself dead to get out of paying a hospital bill. The Grim Reaper tried to take him away.
  • South Park: An Unfrozen man from 3 years in the past discovered his wife had remarried and had two sons... Except the sons were too old to have been the children of her new husband. (8 and 13 to be exact)
  • Professor Farnsworth in Futurama, when his... uh, descendant Cubert bring up that he was declared legally dead by some bizarre circumstances. The Professor immediately comes back with, "You take one nap in a ditch and they start declaring you this and that!" It comes back to bite him, though.
  • Wild West COW Boys Of Moo Mesa: Seven years after Colonel Cudster put his daughter in charge of his gold mine and left Cowtown to look for more gold, Mayor Bulloney tried to invoke an old law to get the Colonel declared dead and seize the mine.

    Real Life 
  • Declaring someone dead to steal that person's property is a more common practice than India wants to admit.
  • John Darwin went out in a canoe and never returned. His wife had him declared legally dead to claim his life insurance. Until he turned up again, and the police found evidence he'd had a passport in a fake name. Also a subversion of Easy Amnesia, which he claimed to have when he first reappeared.
  • Truth in Television: Bodies that were never found after earthquakes, building collapses, fires, wars, boat sinkings, and so on are often declared dead fairly soon after their disappearance due to "imminent peril" clauses in laws that deal with Death In Absentia.
  • "Death In Absentia", "Declared Dead", "Declared Deceased", "Presumed Deceased" and "Legally Dead" are all legal terms for someone who has not been seen or heard from for some time. It allows for wills to be read, spouses to be declared widowed, and life to go on. For someone to be declared this (at least in the US and Canada) is no small matter: those who seek to declare someone dead have to make a concerted effort to find the person, there has to be no evidence that the person being declared dead is still alive, and usually the last known contact has to be at least seven years prior. Sometimes the waiting period is waived (see above in Type 5), but just as often the search goes on longer (for example, friends and family of Richey James Edwards searched for nearly twice as long as required).
  • Jimmy Hoffa, Judge Joseph Force Crater, Ray Gricar, etc.


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