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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:

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

Note that in Types 5 and 6, it's likely (and often indeed the case) that these people really are dead.

Examples of Legally Dead include:

Type 1

  • In 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...
  • Popped up in Batman Begins, 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...
  • At the end of The Hobbit, 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.
  • 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.
  • South Park: An Unfrozen man from 3 years in the past discovered his wife had remarried and had a son.
  • 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 1978, the short-lived sitcom Baby, I'm Back 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 the two previous entries.
  • Happens to Chuck Noland in Cast Away.
  • In 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.
  • Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII-2 Everyone thinks she dead but Serah.
  • Happens to Robin Hood 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.
  • Lucius Vorenus' wife believes him dead after ten years campaigning with Caesar.
  • Often subverted on the Internet, particularly on, 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.

Type 2

  • 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 is shot down over the ocean and lost with all aboard. '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, so the guy asking to explain must be an impostor.
  • One fourth season episode of MASH involves Hawkeye being mistakenly declared dead due to a paperwork mix-up.
  • 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.
  • 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).
    • The instances which caused the inversion of type 2 were typically type 5.

Type 3

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Declaring someone dead to steal that person's property is a more common practice than India wants to admit.
  • In Ashes of Victory, the eponymous character is declared dead after an enemy nation (who had indeed captured her previously) fakes her execution.
  • 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 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...
  • In 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 turn this into Type 4 and 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.)

Type 4

  • 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 Smith Engimar the murder victim in the first case.
  • Real Life: 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.
  • Attempted in an episode of the old Superman 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.
  • Travis in Blakes Seven, 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.
  • 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.

Type 5

  • In Mass Effect 2, Commander Shepard was declared dead by the Alliance after going MIA when the Normandy was destroyed. When Shepard comes Back From the Dead, the C-Sec has trouble identifying him/her but Capt. Bailey offers Shepard to restore his/her profiles. When asked, he explains that "spending a year dead is a popular tax dodge".
  • 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 "immiment peril" clauses in laws that deal with Death In Absentia.
  • 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.

Type 6

  • Richey James Edwards, where are you?
  • "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 Edwards searched for more than a decade).
  • 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.
  • Jimmy Hoffa, Judge Joseph Force Crater, Ray Gricar, etc.
  • Aignan, Conson's son, from A Void went missing thirty years before the story in Oxford.
  • In the horror film Absentia, Tricia's husband is declared legally dead after being missing for seven years. Then he comes back.
  • The end of the Doctor Who 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.
    • Also combines Type 5, as she disappeared on the day of the Attack on Canary Wharf. The episode is called "Doomsday" for a reason.

Type 7

  • The world of Girl Genius got lots of mad scientists running around many of whom can bring the people back. Royals don't like succession issues created when someone dies and then lives again so they have a simple rule: once you're dead, you're gone -- out of the list forever. Of course, this leads to much blackmail flying from and toward resurrected nobles. The rulers who are mad scientists themselves tend to be less than punctual in this regard.
  • 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.
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