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Legal death is a government's official recognition that a person has died. Normally this is done by issuing a death certificate. In most cases, such a certificate is only issued either by a doctor's declaration of death or by an identified corpse.
In hospitals or other care facilities, a doctor or other qualified person legally declares a person dead. Medical advances have made death more difficult to define.
Presumption of death
In some cases, a person will be declared dead even without any remains or doctor's declaration. This is under one of two circumstances. First, if a person was known to be in mortal peril when last seen, they can often be declared dead shortly after. Examples would be the passengers of the Titanic that were not rescued after the ship sank. Second, if a person has not been seen for a certain period of time and there has been no evidence that they are alive. The amount of time that has passed varies by jurisdiction, from as little as four years in the US state of Georgia to twenty years in Italy.
In some cases, a legal declaration of death is fraudulent. Several people have faked their own deaths for various reasons. The most common reasons for this are to collect insurance money, to avoid capture by police or to avoid paying debts.
People have also been declared legally dead by corrupt governments. In Uttar Pradesh, India, officials have often been bribed to declare a living person legally dead so that others can steal their land or other property. The Uttar Pradesh Association of Dead People was founded to help people in this situation.
Determining cause of death often has important legal implications. Governments appoint a coroner to both determine cause of death, and if necessary, identify bodies when their identities are unknown. Deaths are usually classified as natural, accidental, homicide or suicide. A soldier is often listed as killed in action if the death was during military service. There are legal implications to all of the classifications.
In nearly all jurisdictions, dead people do not have the right to own property. When a person dies, their property needs to be distributed to others in a process called probate. People can specify their wishes before they die by preparing a will and testament. If there is no will, the laws of their country determine how the property is distributed. In most cases, it would go to next of kin, such as a spouse or adult child. If the person who died is wealthy, often a portion of their property will be collected by an estate tax.
In some cases, declarations of death are in error and need to be reversed. One such example is after an erroneous declaration of death. Another is for fraud. In some jurisdictions, a declaration of death is final and nearly impossible to reverse. In most places, it is a long drawn-out process. It took Lal Bihari nineteen years to reverse his fraudulent legal death.