The process for declaring someone legally dead is one that is covered in state law, but in Pennsylvania, the statute's language does leave some leeway to the judge considering the petition.
To complete the process, the York Daily Record's article "He was declared dead, then killed two deputies. How?" says that three things must occur:
- The person must be missing for at least seven years;
- Their absence must be deemed unexplained; and
- A judge must rule that an attempt has been made to find the individual.
The bottom line is that the family has to convince the judge they've done all that they can. A judge needs to be confident that the family made a thorough effort to find the individual. Pennsylvania law states that the petitioner must make a "diligent inquiry" into a family member's disappearance; however, it doesn't say what exactly a "diligent inquiry" is.
The family of David Brian Evans, age 68, filed a petition in County Court in 2014 to declare him legally dead. The court granted it. However, Evans appeared just last month at a Maryland restaurant where he shot and killed two deputies. Police subsequently shot and killed Evans.
It's rare that someone would be declared dead by the court but then later reappear. The most frequent reason for declaring someone dead is a legal formality in order to settle an estate.
If a person has been absent for a long time and there's no explanation, the family may need to move forward with the estate. That was the case with Evans, as his sister, Diane Gentry, initiated the petition to declare him dead. Gentry pursued the petition so her father's assets could be divided among the survivors after his death in 2011, records state.
Reference: York Daily Record (March 1, 2016) "He was declared dead, then killed two deputies. How?"