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September 24, 2001
Victims' Families In a Benefits Quagmire
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usands of people remain missing but not offically dead in the World Trade Center attack, and that is creating problems for families trying to collect on insurance policies, get access to bank accounts, and execute wills, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Coroners need physical proof that a person is deceased before they can issue a death certificate, but in the case of the New York disaster, many victims are believed to have vanished without a trace.

That is not so much a problem in smaller-scale tragedies, such as airplane crashes or boats that sink. But with upwards of 7,000 feared dead in New York, legal experts say established laws are inadequate to handle the situation.

Funeral officials say the problem is already affecting some of their clients, such as New York resident Karen Martinez. Her husband was delivering flowers to an office in the north tower of the trade center when the airplane hit the building. She hasn't heard from him since.

She also hasn't been able to access the money he kept in a savings account for emergencies. "I didn't think that I'd need to have my name on the account," Martinez said. "He handled all of our bills."

Officials with the Frank E. Campbell Mortuary in Manhattan say they ran into the same problem when they were retained by a New Mexico family of a flight attendant who was on one of the planes that crashed into the towers.

"They keep asking us when the death certificate will be issued, and I can't provide an answer for them yet," said Kevin Mack, Campbell's general manager. "All I know is that a person has to be missing for a certain period of time. But is that time three years? Two years? Six months? No one knows, and the government's not telling us."

Under New York law, a missing person can't legally be declared dead until he or she has been "absent" for three years. The statute makes allowances, however, if there is "clear and convincing evidence" of "effective exposure to a specific peril."

New Jersey state officials already have contacted New York's Surrogate's Court--which handles probate issues--and the New York State Supreme Court (the lowest court of jurisdiction for lower Manhattan) to relax the three-year rule.

"It's an issue we're sensitive to and will address it with the governor's office and the city when appropriate," said a spokesman with the New York Supreme Court.

Such rules are put into place to prevent fraud, insurance experts say.

The vast majority of claims stemming from disasters are legitimate. But attorneys for the insurance industry and plaintiffs say numerous air crashes--such as the Alaska Airlines crash off California last year--have produced questionable lawsuits, either from people claiming to be relatives of victims, or claiming injury damages.

To view the Los Angeles Times story, click here.
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