The FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) contains over 89,000 active missing persons cases (as of May 2018). That’s over 89,000 families who are left with a gaping hole in their lives and in their households—missing fathers who taught their children to ride bikes and were never too busy to help out with a science project—mothers who made PB&J sandwiches just right, and never forgot to leave the hall light on. Most notably, many families are left without half of their household income when a parent or guardian goes missing. The missing person may have set up a life insurance policy to ensure their families would be cared for in the event of their death, but stymied law enforcement have recovered no remains, so the insurance company refuses to pay out. The family is left without any soil to begin filling the hole where the missing loved one once stood.
The emotional roller coaster that ensues when a loved one goes missing is fraught with fear, confusion, and desperation for answers. Every waking moment, you wring your hands, hoping the loved one is safe and simply unable to communicate for rational reasons. Days go by—you cooperate with investigators and give them all the available information you have on the missing person. Weeks pass, but life goes on, even amidst a tragedy. When you consider the financial ramifications of picking up after a partner or spouse vanishes, the numbers are discouraging. A 2012 report by Legal Momentum determined the median income for two-parent families was $89,455. The median income for a single mother household was $25,493, while a single father’s income is $36,471. Those single parent incomes account for 31% and 40% of the two-parent income, respectively. How is a single parent suddenly supposed to take care of their family when nearly half their household income evaporates following the disappearance of their partner or spouse?
In the days or weeks following the death of a parent or loved one, the beneficiary of their life insurance policy will contact the company and submit a death certificate to prove the owner of the policy is deceased. In the case of a missing person, there is no death certificate without first coordinating what is called a “presumption of death.” The Indian Evidence Act, Section 108 states presumptions of death can only be made when a person has been missing for at least seven years from the date of the initial missing persons report. This is known as the First Information Report (FIR). After the mandatory period has passed, the beneficiary may receive the claim.
In addition to the too-familiar scenarios normally surrounding missing persons—people who run away, people who are abducted, people who fall off of cruise ships or disappear from trails in national parks, etc.—other events that often fall under this legislation are missing persons who vanish during the calamity of natural disasters, such as tornadoes or hurricanes. After the flood that devastated Uttarakhand in 2013, P Chidabaram, the Finance Minister of India, asked the country’s largest life insurance provider, Life Insurance Corporation of India, to waive the traditional seven year period, having the company sign indemnity bonds so claims could be closed swiftly. The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season was particularly devastating, with two of the total eight hurricanes rated a category three or above. Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida panhandle like tissue paper, blowing Mexico Beach completely off the map. Initially, 285 people were unaccounted for in the town’s population, but was later reduced to 46 as residents were either located post-evacuation, or rescued from the wreckage. The California Camp Fire has killed 60 people to date—the deadliest in history—has displaced thousands of families attempting to outrun the flames, with many unable to contact their loved ones and let them know they’re safe. On November 14, 2018, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office released a list of 103 people who have been reported missing since the blaze began. “If your name is on the list, it means that someone is looking for you,” Sheriff Kory Honea said. “Let us know that you’re okay, so that we can stop our search for you and start looking for someone else.” That list has now swelled to 300 names and is expected to continue climbing.
Working closely with law enforcement is a major tenant of a successful claim on a missing persons’ life insurance policy, particularly on the presumption of death. The Indian Evidence Act only requires a beneficiary to wait seven years from the date of the FIR before filing the claim, but depending on where you live in the United States, law enforcement can use evidence to prove a missing persons’ death, even when a body cannot be found—for example, the case of Mike Williams, a man who went missing on a duck-hunting trip in Florida in 2000. Police found his boat floating abandoned on Lake Seminole, which prompted them to drag the lake in search of his remains. When no trace was found, authorities formed the theory Mr. Williams had fallen off the boat and was subsequently eaten by alligators. This theory of the accident explained why no body was ever recovered, allowing his widow to obtain a death certificate and collect on his $1 million-dollar insurance policy. Seventeen years after her husband was reported missing, Denise Williams was indicted on murder charges after her second husband (and Mike’s best friend), Brian Winchester confessed to killing Mike in conspiracy with his wife for the insurance money.
Law enforcement’s theory about Mike Williams disappearance created a loophole you could drive a truck through, but not all beneficiaries of life insurance policies can depend on this loophole. In some states, with the help of legal representation, beneficiaries of the missing insured can begin legal proceedings that would accelerate the issuance of a death certificate, but this comes with a much higher burden of proof, and demands a pool of evidence that would stand up to the most thorough, independent investigation procedures. In the event such evidence of death cannot be found, there is a procedure in place for those who must wait seven years following the filing of a FIR. After seven years, the beneficiary of the insured, or the heir of the insured, must submit the following documents to the insurance company:
- Claimant’s statement form signed by the nominee of the legal heir
- Copy of the FIR and the missing person’s report filed with the police
- Original policy contract documents or indemnity bond
- Copy of death certificate, or a court order presuming the person is dead after the lapse of seven years
When a loved one goes missing, a family is left in a stasis, paralyzed by their fear and ‘what-if’ games while the world selfishly continues to spin. Eventually, families need to pick up the pieces, a process eased by the financial support set up for them by the missing insured, but only if they can file a claim. If you have recently set up a life insurance policy for your family, educate them on the process of filing a claim should you go missing without a trace.
According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), there are 86,927 active missing persons cases as of April 30, 2018. These cases include juvenile disappearances, endangered missing, involuntary or “non-family” abductions, those with disabilities, catastrophe victims and those entered into NCIC as “other.”
When a person we love goes missing, a time of great emotional turmoil and intense ambiguity follows. Dr. Pauline Boss said decades ago, having a loved one go missing is one of the most traumatic of human experiences.
Not only are families trying to manage the trauma of “not knowing” where their loved one is, they must quickly learn to maneuver the legal system. When do you report a loved one missing? What happens when police get involved? What can you do to help find a missing person? These are just a few of the questions a family of a missing person is facing.
Unfortunately, there is no handbook to fully educate someone as to what do to and how to emotionally handle the initial shock or help maintain the energy needed to find a loved one who has mysteriously vanished. However, there are many things you can do to help find a missing loved one and help reduce stress for family members.
There are various contributors to cause a person to go missing. A family member may suffer from Alzheimer’s or mental illness, they may be a victim of domestic violence, live a “high risk” lifestyle, even be a victim of a vehicular accident. There are also disappearances that cannot be immediately explained.
The key to increasing the chances of finding a missing person safe is acting fast and initiating a search effort as soon as possible. From making the initial missing person report and engaging the public to hiring a private investigator, there is much to expedite finding a missing loved one.
1. Contact Authorities
Making a police report is the first and most vital step in initiating a search for a missing person. Filing a police report ensures local law enforcement is alerted to the disappearance and can assess the situation to determine if the person may be in danger and if an investigation needs to be conducted.
When a child goes missing, law enforcement is required by federal mandate to take the report immediately and enter the child’s information into the National Crime Information Center at the FBI. However, when an adult goes missing, law enforcement is not required to take an immediate report or enter the person into NCIC and may cite a 24-48 hour waiting period as policy. There is no federal mandate requiring law enforcement to wait to take a report. It helps to be calm while insisting they take a report.
Though many law enforcement agencies will take an immediate report, it is recommended to inform officers of anything to classify the person as endangered such as needing medications for a medical condition, suffering from mental illness, being a danger to themselves or others, a domestic violence situation, any threats the person may have received, a situation where it is out of normal behavior to vanish for any length of time. For example, if a mother regularly picks up her child at daycare and fails to arrive to pick their child up, this would be considered out of the behavioral norm.
Be prepared to provide authorities with the missing person’s descriptive information, a current photograph, a list of places the person frequents, list of friends and family, description of the missing person’s vehicle, a list of possessions missing or left behind, etc.
Once a report has been filed, be sure to keep a copy. Also request the NCIC number (this reflects the person has been entered into the national FBI database and available nationwide to all law enforcement, medical examiners, and Coroners).
Regardless of the circumstance of the disappearance, making a police report is beneficial.
2. Keep a Log
Keeping a log with the full names and contact information of all people you talk to is important in maintaining good communication with everyone involved in the search for the missing person and staying organized.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed when making numerous phone calls, sending emails, etc. Keeping a log is a simple but important way to stay organized and maintain effectiveness, in addition to reducing stress.
3. Contact Family, Friends and Coworkers
Many times, a simple lack of communication can occur, and a missing person can be found by contacting family, friends, and coworkers.
Even after making a missing person report to police, be sure to reach out to others to find out if they have seen the individual or told where the person may be going. Life can become busy and simple miscommunication can contribute to a person being out of touch for extended periods of time. Cover all your bases by calling or texting friends to find out if they have heard from the missing person.
4. Social Networks
Social networks like Facebook can be integral to the search for a missing person from the moment the person is missing to an ongoing search if necessary.
Look at the missing person’s social media pages for their last posts, any information about their plans and even state of mind. Look to see if they received any harassing or strange communications from others.
Contact Facebook friends and ask if they have heard from or seen the missing person. It is important to provide any pertinent information you receive from others to the investigating law enforcement agency.
Also, Facebook and Instagram are the perfect places to obtain current photographs of the missing person to be provided to law enforcement and to make fliers.
5. Contact Jails, Homeless Shelters, Hospitals and Morgues
It is important to remain cognizant of law enforcement’s limitations when searching for a missing person, especially adults as they have a right to go missing if they so choose.
As difficult as it can be, it is necessary to contact hospitals and morgues to see if the individual is injured in the hospital or unidentified in a morgue. This can be a very difficult task and you may want to ask a friend or family member to help make the calls.
6. Register the Missing Person with Organizations Offering Resources
If you are searching for a missing child, call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) as soon as possible. NCMEC specializes in providing services for families and children who are missing. NCMEC can be reached at 1-800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678).
For families searching for someone with mental illness, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides resources for families. Their website also offers many resources.
Contact the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS) at www.findthemissing.org or www.namus.org. NAMUS is a powerful resource where information about missing persons is entered by family members of missing persons, the criminal justice community, law enforcement, and medical examiners and is publicly accessible.
7. Make a One-Page Flyer
Make a one-page flyer of the missing person. The flyer should contain the following:
- Preferably two current photographs of the missing person
- Full name
- Height, Weight, Age
- Photo of vehicle and license plate
- Place last seen
- Phone number of investigating law enforcement
*NOTE: It is recommended you never place your own phone number or contact information on a missing person flyer. First, it is very important calls are handled by a professional so as not to compromise an investigation. Second, many times families will receive cruel, harassing, and misleading calls from the public and it is very important to protect yourself and your family by buffering these calls.
Engage the public by asking community store owners to hang signs in their place of businesses. Place one at your local post office and anywhere you can legally hang a public notice.
8. Create a Website and Social Media Page
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and other social network sites can be instrumental when searching for a missing loved one, especially if they are not found immediately. With any missing person case, it is important to maintain awareness and keep the public engaged in the search.
- Create a site with an engaging name like “Find Jane Doe” or “Missing Jane Smith”. This will help bring your page up in Google and related search results.
- Post recent pictures and include specific descriptive information to include the clothing they were last wearing, jewelry, glasses, tattoos, scars, etc.
- Upload a PDF version of the flier so others can share and download to post in their communities.
- If your loved one has a mental illness, you may want to simply say the person is “endangered” due to a medical condition or vulnerable and needs medications.
- Add links to any news stories.
- Upload a video and make a personal public appeal.
- Make sure to provide the investigating law enforcement agency’s number and encourage people to call them directly with information and leads.
9. Alert your Local Newspapers and Media
Getting local media to assist can sometimes be difficult. News stations are not likely to cover a missing person story unless it comes from law enforcement. It is much easier if law enforcement puts out a press release indicating a person is in danger. Speak to the detectives and ask if they will issue a press release.
10. Hiring a Private Investigator
When is it time to hire a private investigator? There is no easy answer, but it is encouraged to consult with one early on, especially if the person has not returned home within a few days.
Because there is only so much law enforcement can do, at times finding the missing person requires additional assistance, both professional and specialized.
A missing person private investigator has access to databases and systems the general public does not, making finding a missing person a much easier task. An experienced private detective with experience working with law enforcement can be an asset to a missing person investigation, and can ease the burden off families, allowing family and friends to concentrate on other efforts, like social networking and keeping the public engaged.
Experienced private investigators can access information, interview witnesses and community members in order to generate new leads for an investigation, sharing information with the investigating law enforcement agency to ensure all rocks are being overturned.
Because their missing person private investigation services are being paid for, a private investigator will ensure locating the missing person has their full attention.
It is also advisable to look for a missing person private investigator who has experience working with media, so they may comment on the case without compromising law enforcement’s investigation.
About Kym L. Pasqualini
Kym Pasqualini is founder and served as CEO for the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults from 1994-2010. Kym has worked with media world-wide and quoted in publications such as People Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Glamour. Kym has appeared in local and national media to include CNN, FOX, BBC, Montel Williams and the John Walsh Show. Kym continues to work with families of the missing and law enforcement nationwide.
Kym has started the website, www.missingleads.com, and the facebook discussion group, https://www.facebook.com/groups/missingleads focusing on locating clues and keeping focus on cold missing persons and unsolved homicide cases.