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Sarah Delano Pavlik and Tom Pavlik write a monthly column on legal and business issues for the Springfield Business Journal.

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It is likely that the bodies of many of the victims of the World Trade Center attack will never be found. In addition to the psychological trauma to the families of the victims, there are also significant legal difficulties. How can the families of the victims handle financial matters if the victim is never found? Fortunately, the federal government, state and county governments, insurance companies and others are implementing special procedures in the wake of this national disaster.

Under normal circumstances, when a person dies, the family members or other beneficiaries use a death certificate to claim certain assets such as life insurance proceeds, retirement plan benefits and "pay on death" bank accounts. A death certificate cannot be issued, though, without proof that the person has died. Likewise, a will cannot be admitted to probate without proof that a person has died. If a will is not admitted to probate, the person named in the will as executor will not have the power to administer the estate.

If a person is missing and believed dead, a family member can file a petition with the court and request that a "presumption of death certificate" be issued. The standard used by the court will vary from state to state. State laws usually require that notice be given to family members and others and that notice be published in the paper. Obviously, these legal procedures take time and could force victims' families to wait to receive death benefits at a time when those benefits are greatly needed. Therefore, the courts in New York City and in New Jersey are currently developing special procedures for the families of the victims so that death certificates can be issued. In the meantime, many government agencies and private companies are waiving the requirement of a death certificate.

In order to expedite claims, the Social Security Administration has activated special emergency procedures for survivor claims and disability claims resulting from the terrorist attacks. The Social Security web site (www.ssa.gov) states: "Usually we require a statement from a disinterested party about what happened to the deceased, but because of the events in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, weíll also accept: (1) Newspaper accounts of flight manifests for people who were on one of the four airplanes. You can get these accounts on the Internet from any national news source, United Airlines or American Airlines. (2) Pentagon press releases listing individuals who have not been accounted for, for people who were working in the Pentagon at the time of the attack. (3) Your statement of loss of a person who was in or near the World Trade Center."

Many life insurance companies are also waiving the requirement of a death certificate. Aetna has stated that it will accept any official documents proving death, including a death certificate, an airline manifest or a coroner's report. If the body of a victim cannot be recovered, Aetna will accept documentation from an employer that the person was in the office at the time of the attack. Prudential has also indicated that it will not require a death certificate to process life insurance claims, although it has not stated exactly what it will require. For contact numbers of life insurance companies and further information, see www.deathandtaxes.com.

In addition to life insurance claims, there will also be thousands of property insurance claims. Although specific requirements have not been announced, presumably insurance companies will accept any reasonable proof regarding the destruction of property that was located in or near the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

Family members will also need to probate the wills of the victims. The wills of some victims, however, may have been destroyed. Several law firms were located in the World Trade Center towers. Clients often leave their original wills with their attorneys. Presumably none of these documents will be found. In cases where an original will has been destroyed, most states (including Illinois) allow a copy of the will to be admitted to probate. The executor will need to provide the court with evidence that the original will was in one of the buildings that was destroyed. This evidence could take many forms such as a letter from the attorney stating that she was retaining the original or the statement of the attorney herself.

Our government and other institutions realize the enormous difficulties facing the families of those killed in the terrorist attacks. At this time, these institutions are struggling with the best way to ease the burden on these families. Unfortunately, fraud is always a possibility. Even in this time of national disaster, there will be some who try to claim funds that do not belong to them. Therefore, the government, insurance companies and others must balance compassion with objectivity to ensure that the right persons are receiving the property to which they are entitled.
Posted in: October, 2017
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