Missing Decedent

What happens if you think someone has died but there is no body? In one case I had California issued a death certificate after a man's caregiver was convicted of his murder even thought a body was never found.

N.R.S. 156.010 through 156.260 deals with the Estates of Missing Persons. A brief summary is that once the person has been missing for three years, N.R.S. 156.120, a probate can be opened up and the property can't be sold (except to pay taxes and in other narrow exceptions) or distributed until a year after the appointment of the personal representative, N.R.S. 156.170. If all of the missing person's property is in a trust and the missing person is the trustee, the remedy would be to apply to the District Court where the missing person resides and have the Court appoint a trustee (probably the successor trustee) and accept jurisdiction of the trust. N.R.S. 164.010.

Order Of Death

Usually who inherits under a will or in the absence of a will depends upon the order of death. For example, Dick and Jane each had three children (with other mates) before they marry, are now married, and have no children together, and are both killed in car wreck. Neither has a will and each has an equal amount of money. How is their money divided between the two sets of kids? In Nevada's version of the simultaneous death act, N.R.S. 135, if it can be shown that Dick died at 11.15 a.m. in an ambulance on the way to the hospital and Jane died at 11:20 a.m. in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, Jane's kids will get more than Dick's kids. In some other states the result would be that since Dick and Jane died within 24 hours of each other, they are considered to have died simultaneously and in the example, the two sets of kids would inherit equally.

Another example of order of death would Tom has life insurance policy that lists as the only beneficiary his girlfriend, Mary. Tom and Mary are killed in a car wreck. If Mary is considered to have died first, then when Tom died there was no beneficiary under his life insurance policy and the pay-out belongs to his intestate heirs, or those heirs who by statute inherit in the absence of a will. If Tom is considered to have died first, the pay-out belongs to Mary's intestate heirs.

Death Certificate Issues

The general rule in the United States is that property other than real estate should be probated in the state that the Decedent (person who died) was a resident of at the time of their death. The Clark County, Nevada, Probate Court won't do a probate of personal property unless it is shown a death certificate that lists Nevada as the Decedent's residence. What state gets put as the Decedent's residence on the death certificate can be pretty arbitrary. Typically the funeral director will ask the "informant" and accept the informant's answer. (The "informant" is usually the relative arranging the burial or cremation.)

If the death certificate shows that the Decedent was a resident of another state, but the Decedent was really a resident of Nevada, then an application for an Amended Death Certificate must be filed with the State of Nevada, Department of Health and Human Services. There is a $40 filing fee. This is not a complicated procedure, but it can delay probate.

Other "corrections" to a death certificate may be more complicated. For example, to change the marital status of a decedent on the death certificate may require a court order. 

Another important thing to know about death certificates is that many institutions will not follow a probate court order until they are also shown a certified copy of the death certificate. For example, the personal representative takes all necessary court papers, all certified, to a bank or the DMV to ask for the account balance or to have the vehicle title transferred into the heir's name. The clerk demands a death certificate. It does no good to argue that you have a court order saying the person died. You will have to bring or send the certified copy of the death certificate.

It occasionally happens that a person who has property in the United States dies in a different country. If the person who died is a U.S. citizen, the U.S. Department of State will issue a document called, "Death of a Citizen Abroad." Probate courts will accept this instead of a death certificate. Many foreign countries include English on the their death certificates. For example, European Union country date certificates may be printed in more than a dozen languages.(For example, a German death certificate will have the phrase, "Date of Death" in at least a dozen languages.) Probate Courts accept these foreign death certificates if they include English.

Financial institutions may unreasonably demand that such a death certificate have an apostille from either the issuing government or the Nevada Department of State. Trying to get this is usually a fool's errand. In one case I had to file a Motion in the Probate Court to make Wells Fargo accept the determination by the Clark County Probate Court that the person was in fact dead based on the German death certificate. Once I filed this Motion and served it on Wells Fargo's agent, they agreed to accept the Probate Court paperwork and German death certificate.

If the foreign death certificate does not contain English, the Probate Court will demand a translation and may be picky about what constitutes an acceptable translation.

Court Delays

In Clark County, Nevada's most populous county, contested probates are seriously back-logged. Until about 2019 uncontested probates could be moved, if the parties and lawyer acted promptly, as fast as the law allowed. However, in 2021, it is taking about 5-8 weeks to get an uncontested probate hearing, instead of the prior 2 or 3 weeks. However, this is far better than the case in most California counties where an uncontested probate hearing can take a few months to get a date. Most Nevada counties schedule probate hearings with a few weeks rather than a few months like California.

As of 2019, a lawyer can e-file a Notice of Hearing for a probate case and the Court will accept the Notice with whatever date is on it and place its file-stamp on the notice. Then, later a court clerk checks to see if there is room on the Court's calendar for that case. If there is not, the Court Clerk will issue a new Notice of Hearing with a later date.