Life Insurance And The Presumption Of Death

For a beneficiary to recover death benefits, the insured must be dead.  Doubt may arise when the insured disappeared or when there is uncertainty over the identity of the dead body.  This is illustrated in the 1987 Texas Supreme Court case, Davidson v. Great National Life Insurance Co. and in the 1892 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York v. Hillmon.

Proof of the insured’s death may be aided by a legal presumption.  After a person is absent for seven years, the law will presume the person is dead.  This is pursuant to the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, Section 133.001.

In Davidson, the insured traveled to Tel Aviv, leaving behind some questionable financial dealings.  A badly disfigured body was found near the hotel where he was registered.  His wife claimed the body was his, and she sought death benefits.  The insurer asserted there was a conspiracy to commit fraud and to fake the insured’s death.  Relevant evidence included testimony from an Israeli police officer identifying photos of the body as being photos of the insured.

In the Hillmon case, Hillmon headed West but never returned.  Someone’s body was buried, and there was some evidence that the body was Hillmon.  There was also evidence that the body might have been Walters.  The jury found for Hillmon’s wife.  The Supreme Cort held that the insurers should have been allowed to introduce letters from Walters showing his intent to travel with Hillmon, because that tended to corroborate the idea that the body was Hillmon.

A 1945 San Antonio Court of Appeals case is worth citing.  It is styled, American National Insurance Co. v. Dailey.  It cites from an 1868 Iowa opinion.  “An honored and upright citizen, who, through a long life, has enjoyed the fullest confidence of all who knew him, prosperous in business and successful in the accumulation of wealth; rich in the affection of wife and children, and attached to their society; contented in the enjoyment of his possessions, fond of the association of his friends, and having that love of country which all good men possess, with no habits or affections contrary to these traits of character, journeys from his home to a distant city and is never afterward heard of.  Must seven years pass, or must it be shown that he was last seen or heard of in peril before his death can be presumed?  No greater wrong could be done to the character of the man than to account for his absence, even after a few short months, upon the ground of a wanton abandonment of his family and friends.  He could have lived a good and useful life to but little purpose, if those who knew him could even entertain such a suspicion.  The reasons that the evidence above the mentioned raises a presumption of death are obvious; absence from any other cause, being without motive and inconsistent with the very nature of the person is improbable.”