John Schwartz is a New York Times science writer. He focuses on infrastructure, but used to write primarily about space. He was also once the paper’s legal correspondent. He has covered cases on child pornography, rare gold coins, defendant’s tattoos, false confessions, and now, arguing with a man about whether or not he is dead.
Donald E. Miller Jr. was deeply in debt in the mid-nineties, and ran away from his family to live in Florida. But Ohio, where he used to live, declared him legally dead, a decisions which cannot be reversed after three years. He now lacks a social security number, and was trying to get the decision reversed. Ms. Miller is fighting his return to life out of fear she would have to repay benefits she received since her husband’s “death.” The judge, in accordance to the law, was unable to reverse the decision.
Donald E. Miller Jr. is legally dead, an Ohio judge explained to Donald E. Miller Jr. this week in court.
The judge, Allan H. Davis of Hancock County Probate Court, had declared Mr. Miller dead in 1994, several years after he mysteriously disappeared, leaving thousands of dollars of child support unpaid. His ex-wife, Robin Miller, had requested the declaration at the time so that she could apply for Social Security benefits for their two daughters.
In fact, Mr. Miller, 61, had simply drifted away to work in Georgia and Florida, he told the judge on Monday in Findlay, Ohio. Now, he said, he wanted to apply for a driver’s license and needed to reactivate his Social Security number.
The judge noted that Ohio law does not allow a declaration of death to be reversed after three years or more have passed.
“I don’t know where that leaves you, but you’re still deceased as far as the law is concerned,” Judge Davis told Mr. Miller during the 30-minute hearing, according to The Courier, a newspaper in Findlay.
The newspaper called Mr. Miller “the most famous dead man alive.”
In an interview, Judge Davis said that the case was decided “in strict conformity with Ohio law,” but that it had led to “a bizarre set of circumstances.”
He suggested that Mr. Miller’s situation could lead the Ohio legislature to rethink the law. In the meantime, he said, Mr. Miller can appeal the decision or take the matter up with the Social Security Administration, which might have a different view of the law.
“Every time you think you’ve seen everything,” the judge said, “something like this comes along.”
Ms. Miller’s lawyer, James Hammer, opposed Mr. Miller’s resurrection on the ground that Ms. Miller might have to return the several years of benefit payments she received for her daughters. “You just didn’t want to open a Pandora’s box of possibly having to return the benefits,” he said in an interview.
Ms. Miller, a nurse who cannot work because of a disability, said she was not trying to be vindictive toward her former husband, but could not afford to repay the money. She first learned that Mr. Miller was alive when he showed up in front of her home more than a year ago, sitting at a picnic table with his girlfriend. “I said, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ ” recalled Ms. Miller, who has married again to a man whose surname is also Miller. “It was civil the whole time. We were both very nice.”
Francis Marley, Mr. Miller’s lawyer, said that his client, who is not giving interviews, probably could not afford to appeal the decision. He said that Mr. Miller simply wanted to be able to work with a valid Social Security number. “We hoped the judge would see the equity of giving his life back,” he said.
As for why his client, who told Judge Davis that he is an alcoholic, disappeared for so many years, the lawyer said that “he was just — I guess you would call it a man-of-the-road, free-spirit type.”
Had he ever encountered a case like this? “No,” Mr. Marley said, “but I’ve only been practicing for 43 years.”