The story about the dead guy who appeared before a judge to be declared alive, only to be informed he was still dead has – who would’ve guessed – a second life!
Last December, we recounted the peculiar story and legal status of Donald Miller. A brief recap: Miller, then 61, vanished in the 1980s, at least in part to skip out on paying child support. Eight years later, he was declared dead. However, he resurfaced in 2005 and went to court to have his status updated to “living.” The case meandered through the courts until 2013, when the following surreal scene occurred: Miller stood alive and well in front of Ohio Hancock County Probate Court Judge Allan Davis, only to hear the judge rule against him, telling the “corpse”: “I don’t know where that leaves you, but you’re still deceased as far as the law is concerned.”
The story became fodder for late-night comics, as an example of the absurdity of a United States judicial system that literally can’t acknowledge what it sees in front of its eyes. As I wrote back then, John Oliver exasperatedly wondered aloud on his podcast The Bugle how Miller’s lawyer could lose, when all he had to do was tell the judge, in effect, “Your Honor, here’s my client. I rest my case.”
Once you got past the jokes, though, Judge Davis’ decision illustrated the practicality and adaptability (in this case, at least) of that system. For one, Robin Miller, Donald’s wife when he went off the grid, opposed him being legally resurrected because she and her two daughters had received Social Security support during those long years, and she feared if he was declared “alive,” she’d have to return those payments.
Now, it turns out, she had good reason to worry.
This past April, Robin received a notice from the Social Security Administration ordering her to reimburse it to the tune of $47,000 to cover the death benefits the family had received, plus interest and fees.
Seems the SSA was not as hung up on the niceties of the law when they informed Robin, “We want our money.” The problem with going after Donald Miller for the dough, you see, is that he’s legally still dead.
The ex-wife went to the local press, and the SSA responded that it’s “reviewing Miller’s application for a waiver.” Given that it was Donald, not Robin, who caused the problem, and all the attendant publicity, my guess is that the waiver will be granted.
And publicity this imbroglio has surely received, with coverage on all the major news networks, NPR, and even international outlets like the BBC.
Until this story rose from the grave, I was going to build on last week’s marketing theme, discussing how lawyers can effectively get their messages out to potential clients in a blog. We’ll delve into that more, but in the meantime there are a couple of lessons to be gleaned from the mega-attention paid to this “undead” tale:
First of all, if there’s a story that has seized the public’s imagination, it’s an opportunity to jump in and join the debate, comment on other forums, and link back to your own, erudite insights.
Second, the public will generally jump to simplistic legal conclusions, and the media, by and large, doesn’t feel compelled to help us navigate the subtleties. That leaves an information void that can be filled by an attorney willing to explain the law in a straightforward, non-legalistic manner. Potential clients, after all, seek enlightenment, not entertainment.
Third, we’re all suckers for a good story. “Miller” may be one-of-a-kind, but if a lawyer has (or can speak on) cases that have a compelling human element and use it to illustrate some legal principle and/or degree of expertise, he/she will find an audience.
Before signing off, we can’t resist noting that Donald Miller may have inspired a copy-cat, albeit a helpless one at that. This week a story surfaced about Tucker Blanford, 23, from Connecticut, who was desperate to avoid marriage. To back out his impending nuptials with Alex Lanchester from England, Blanford phoned her up pretending to be his own father, and informed Alex that Tucker unfortunately couldn’t marry her because he had committed suicide, by hurling himself in front of a car.
And you thought breaking up with someone via text was cowardly.
It was a foolproof plan! At least until Alex called Tucker’s mother to offer her condolences and the mother told her that no, Tucker was doing quite well. Tucker never could have anticipated that.
He’s also the subject of worldwide ridicule, and probably wishes, at least for the moment, that he was dead.
Maybe his next call should be to Donald Miller.