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Missing Loved Ones – How to Make the Difficult Decision to Obtain a Declaration of the Death of Your Missing Loved One

September 25, 2023 Posted In

The Heartbreak of Loss: Honoring Loved Ones After the Maui Fires

You are likely here because you have lost a precious family member in the Maui Fires, and we are so very sorry. We cannot fathom the anguish and emptiness you are feeling, and we broach today’s topic with reverence for the cherished life of your loved one and the unimaginable pain that has followed. For those whose family members are still missing, the anguish is compounded, but we are here to help you if and when you decide it may be necessary to ask a court for a declaration of your loved one’s death.  There are many reasons a person may decide to seek such a declaration, including the pressing need to access financial resources to enable you and your family to continue on in life, as well as the need to bring some degree of closure. That legal process after such a devastating fire is complex and we’re sure you have many questions. It is our intention to answer your questions with compassion and sensitivity, acknowledging your pain while also honoring and remembering the life of the one you lost.

The Weight of Loss – When Your Loved One is Still Missing

Waiting for news of a missing family member creates overwhelming anxiety in the hearts of loved ones. Sadly, the news that you hoped for, that your loved one was found safe from the devastating Maui fire never came. Shock and disbelief can make it difficult to come to terms with the reality of your missing loved one’s passing, and you may find yourself denying the possibility of their death, especially if their body has still not been recovered. During such trying times, we encourage you to acknowledge and honor the full range of emotions that come with this process – from anger and numbness to deep sadness and profound grief.

The Benefits of Declaring a Missing Loved One Deceased

If you have made the excruciating decision to accept that your missing loved one is not coming back, it may be time to ask the court to issue a declaration of their death. While it is a deeply personal decision, there are some emotional, financial, and legal reasons that might make the decision to move forward with the process necessary.

  • Collect insurance – insurance proceeds can only be issued to beneficiaries once there is an official declaration of the insured’s death. Financial assistance can be extremely helpful during times of loss, enabling family members to grieve without the added worry of how to financially support themselves. Insurance proceeds can also help cover the costs of a memorial service.
  • Inherit belongings – meaningful objects can be distributed to family members who will cherish them for generations. This can help family members feel closer to their lost loved one and offer comfort and healing.
  • Spiritual – Religious or spiritual ceremonies can then be held honoring the lost loved one and comforting those who remain.
  • Bring a claim for wrongful death – when the death is the result of negligence, as in the case of the Maui Fires, a claim can be filed against the defendant (HECO).
  • Closure – Letting go of a loved one’s presence in this life hurts so much, but once the death is acknowledged and legally declared, you and your family can begin to grieve and begin to find a way forward.

The Process of Obtaining a Declaration of Death

Typically, when someone dies in Hawaii, the death is reported to the state and the state issues a death certificate, but what do you do when there is no body?  When a person is still missing, and their remains have not been found, the process to obtain an official declaration of death is complex and requires filing a petition with the court and proving to the court by what is called “clear and convincing evidence” that the missing person has passed away. The courts recognize that in some situations, such as a catastrophic event like this one a body may never be recovered, but that family members will nevertheless need to have an official recognition of the death in order to obtain legal benefits, manage probate affairs, and move on. In this unique situation, it is best to consult with a lawyer to help you navigate the process. Specifically, a probate attorney can help you prepare and file the necessary court documents.

Contact Us for Help

The caring and compassionate team at Mālama Law Group can help you determine if declaring a missing loved one deceased is the right choice for you and assist you with probate, court petitions, filing wrongful death claims, and every step of this complex process.  If you lost a loved one in the Maui Fires and want to speak with an experienced Maui Fire lawyer, call (808) 215-5870.

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