I. Whether the State of Hawaii properly designated the date of death in the Certificate
of Death for the number holder as 5 years from the day he went missing.
II. Whether the date of death identified on the Certificate of Death must be used
by the Agency as the presumed date of death for the number holder.
I. Yes, in accordance with state law and pursuant to court order, the State of Hawaii
properly designated the presumed date of death as 5 years after the number holder
II. No, the Agency does not have to give controlling weight to the presumed date of
death listed on the Certificate of Death.
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
According to W, her husband, H, went missing from his boat on August 24. W reported
that H's boat was found approximately 1 mile off shore, but his body was never recovered.
On March 13, the State of Hawaii, Circuit Court of the First Circuit, determined that
H died on August 24, in Hawaii. On April 4, the court ordered the State of Hawaii
Department of Health to issue a Certificate of Death for H, reflecting his death on
August 24, in Hawaii.
I. The State of Hawaii Department of Health Properly Recorded the Presumed Date of
In Hawaii, an individual who has been absent for a continuous period of 5 years, during
which time the individual is not heard from, and whose absence is not satisfactorily
explained after diligent search or inquiry, is presumed to be dead. Haw. Rev. Stat.
§ 560:1-107(5); Haw. R. of Evid. 304(c)(7). This presumption modified the traditional
common law presumption of death after a 7-year period of absence. Haw. R. Evid. 304
Commentary. Unless there is sufficient evidence for determining that death occurred
earlier, an individual who has been absent for a period of 5 years is presumed to
have died at the end of the 5-year period. Haw. Rev. Stat. § 560:1-107(5). H was last
seen on August 24. He was not heard from after this date. Under Hawaii law, H was
properly presumed to have died August 24, 5 years after he went missing.
II. Because H Was a Missing Person and There is No Evidence of Actual Death, the Agency
Does Not Have to Give Controlling Weight to the Date of Death Listed on the Certificate
When evidence of death is required to determine eligibility for Social Security benefits,
the regulations describe preferred, secondary, and circumstantial evidence of death.
C.F.R. § 404. 720; Program Operations Manual System (POMS) GN 00304.005, GN 00304.015, GN 00304.025. Typically, a death certificate is the preferred evidence of actual death. Id.
However, when the available evidence does not establish the fact of death as an inevitable
conclusion, as in the case of a missing person, it will be presumed. 20 C.F.R. § 404.721;
POMS GN 00304.050. A missing person is not presumed dead by the Social Security Administration until
it has a certified copy of, or extract from an official report, that the person is
presumed dead pursuant to the Missing Persons Act, 37 U.S.C. §§ 555-556, or when it
has received signed statements and other records that show the person has been absent
from his or her residence and not heard from for at least 7 years. 20 C.F.R. § 404.721.
If the fact of death has not been rebutted, the Agency will presume the person's date
of death as either:
1. The date he/she left home;
2. The date ending the 7-year period during which he/she was absent from his/her residence
and had not been heard from; or
3. Some other date shown by the evidence to be the most likely date of death.
20 C.F.R. § 404.721(b); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.722 (explaining how a presumption of death made under 20 C.F.R. §
404.721 can be rebutted by evidence that establishes the number holder is still alive
or explains the number holder's absence in a manner consistent with continued life
rather than death). If only the fact of the number holder's death is material, the
presumed date of death should be the last day of the 7-year period. POMS GN 00304.050(B)(7)(b).
In some circumstances, the date of presumed death may be established on or near the
date of disappearance instead of the last day of the 7-year period. Those circumstances
1. The missing person encountered some specific peril at or about the time of the
2. The missing person was suicidal.
3. The missing person was in such a poor state of health and was so destitute that
survival was improbable for any length of time after the disappearance.
4. The missing person was attentive to domestic duties, had a home to which he/she
was attached and suddenly, finally, and without explanation disappeared.
POMS GN 00304.050(B)(7)(a); see e.g. SSR 72-1C. In addition, if supported by available evidence, the date of presumed
death may also be established after the 7-year period. POMS GN 00304.050(B)(7)(b). At this time, there is insufficient evidence in the file to determine if
any of these circumstances are applicable in this case. We recommend that further
development be undertaken to determine if an earlier or later date of presumed death
The available evidence in this case favors a determination of presumed death at the
end of the 7-year period H was absent from his home. Hawaii's determination that H
died on August 24, 5 years after he went missing, was based on the 5-year presumption
created by Hawaii law. Depending on the available evidence, a court's declaration
of death based on a presumption of death may be given great weight; however, a court's
declaration is not controlling. Daubert v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 266, 270 (9th Cir. 1990); Carter v. Bowen, 738 F. Supp. 1418, 1419 (N.D. Ga. 1987)(death certificate must indicate more than
presumed death in order to create a binding presumption of death for purposes of Social
Security benefits); POMS GN 00304.050(B)(6). Due to the lack of evidence of actual death prior to the end of the 7-year
period favored by the Agency, it is not necessary to give great weight to the court's
declaration of death. A date of death of August 24, 7 years after H went missing,
may be presumed in this case, absent further development of evidence of an earlier
or later presumed date of death.
Although the State of Hawaii properly recorded H's date of presumed death as August
24, 5 years after H went missing, this date does not have to be given great weight
for purposes of determining eligibility for Social Security Benefits. Consistent with
Agency policy that a missing person is not presumed dead until he/she has been absent
for 7 years, August 24, 7 years after H went missing, may be the presumed date of
death, absent further development of an earlier or later presumed date of death.