Superheros and supervillians too numerous to count have, for various reasons, been killed, lost, or otherwise presumed dead, only to come back at a convenient date. It’s gotten a little silly at times.
The legal system has pretty well-established rules for what to do when someone dies. If they’ve got a will, their property will generally be distributed according to its dictates (no naughty trying to disinherent current spouses!) and if they don’t have a will, i.e. they die intestate, the law is pretty clear about how their estate is to be distributed. Most states have adopted some version of the Uniform Probate Code, or UPC, which other than the UCC and MPC is actually one of the more successful uniform laws in terms of its adoption by the various states.
The law even has a way of handling situations where a person is not actually known to be dead but is clearly no longer around. A person who is legally absent, i.e. a person whose whereabouts are unknown for quite some time, will generally be presumed dead after a few years. Five to seven is pretty common, though interestingly for the citizens of Metropolis, New York only give you three (NY CLS EPTL § 2-1.7). It usually takes a court proceeding to get someone officially declared dead in the absence of a body, and in general, the courts will presume that a person is alive until there is clear evidence to the contrary or state statue operates to force presumption.
That last bit is actually of interest to our consideration of law and the multiverse. Pretty much every state has a statute saying that if one is legally absent for a specified period of time, a court can declare one to be dead. But a few states also have a provision that exposure to a “specific peril of death” can permit a court to rule one dead before the specified period expires. See, e.g., 20 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5701(c). As superheros are exposed to specific perils of death basically all the time, and would not generally be suspected to be dead in the absence of such a peril, it seems likely that a court, or at least a genre blind one, would be willing to rule on a superhero’s death pretty quickly. Which makes things a bit complicated if they aren’t actually dead.
So what happens when, after they have been declared dead, a person turns up again? The Straight Dope has a good article on this subject, so I shall attempt to avoid repeating that discussion here, but their discussion of a rather interesting case on the subject could stand to be expanded.
Southern Farm. Bureau Life Ins. Co. v. Burney, 590 F.Supp. 1016 (E.D.Ark. 1984) is the big case here. In 1976, John Burney of Helena, Arkansas, ran into financial difficulties. On June 11, he was involved in a traffic accident on a bridge crossing the Mississippi River and managed to clamber over the railing and down the bridge into the river, where he swam to Mississippi instead of back home to Arkansas. He caught a bus and spent the next six years living in Florida as “John Bruce,” complete with a new wife and child, neither of whom had any inkling of his former life. He returned to Arkansas in 1982 to visit his father and was discovered. Unfortunately for him, Burley’s wife and business partners had filed claims on various life insurance policies taken out on him and received benefits totaling $470,000. The wife, who may have been annoyed at finding out that her husband had completely abandoned his family and set up another one, contacted the insurer immediately. The insurer was annoyed and promptly sued Burley into next Tuesday.
Here’s where things get interesting for whack-a-mole-type supers: Burley’s wife and business partners, who had no knowledge of Burley’s whereabouts and had assumed that he had died in the accident, wound up a total of $470,000 richer. The judge let them keep that money, theorizing that “the policy of the law is to encourage settlement of litigation and to uphold and enforce contracts of settlement* if they are fairly arrived at, not in contravention of law or public policy.” (Id. at 1022). Burley wound up being found liable for $470,000 plus interest–whether or not he paid is another matter–but the people who received property as a result of his death were permitted to keep it.
The implication here–and there really isn’t much case law beyond this, because most people who are presumed to be dead are actually dead–is that if a person dies or is presumed to be dead, courts are not going to be very eager to disturb the settlement of property distributed via inheritance or devise unless there is a clear statutory reason to do so. Many states have statutes addressing this subject, but they’re all over the place.
– Cal. Prob. Code § 12408 specifies that a person who reappears after being presumed dead may recover any of his estate which has not been distributed, but property that has been distributed is only recoverable if it is “equitable under the circumstances,” and not at all if five years have passed.
– Va. Code Ann. § 64.1-113 provides that property which has not been distributed and property which is in the hands of someone who received it as a result of the presumption of death shall be returned to the person presumed dead, but bona fide purchasers of estate property are allowed to keep it. Pennsylvania takes a different approach.
– 20 Pa.C.S. § 5703 requires that if a person is declared dead in whole or in part on the basis of his continued absence, no property can be distributed out of his estate without the distributee posting a bond for the value of the property. Clearly, a superhero who fears that he may erroneously be declared dead at some point should consider moving to Philadelphia.
– New York doesn’t seem to have a statute on this subject at all, meaning that any property distributed because a person is presumed to have died could be pretty difficult to get back.
So this really becomes a question of the state’s law where our supposedly deceased character’s will or estate would be probated. A returning or resurrected character could find that they get back most of the property they lost, or they could wind up with nothing. The longer they take to come back, the more likely the second outcome is.
*Apparently the insurance company never thought that Burley was dead, but it chose to settle with the claimants rather than fight. The judge reasoned that they had figured the likelihood of Burley actually being alive into their settlement.