The Dead Man Who Sued to Make Himself Alive

Donald E. Miller, Jr. was dead — he died in 1994.

Nearly two decades later, very much alive, he stood in an Ohio courtroom. His goal: he wanted to not be dead anymore. Ohio probate judge Allan H. Davis had to tell him the bad news: Miller was to remain dead.

The problem started nearly ten years before that day in court. In 1986, Miller, then unquestionably alive, ran out on his wife and two daughters, leaving them in significant debt. He didn’t do anything to help them thereafter; rather, he disappeared — no one who knew where he went, as he never told anyone. More importantly, he never sent any child support, alimony, or other financial assistance, making this deadbeat dad was as good as dead to those back in Ohio.

But officially, he was alive — at least until 1994. Donald owed more than $25,000 in unpaid child support, money his family would certainly never see. So his (effectively) ex-wife Robin asked the state to declare him legally dead. Doing so would entitle her and the children to a Social Security death benefit of about $30,000 — money the family could really use to account for that gap. The court agreed. Donald Miller died that day — as far as the law was concerned.

Fast forward to 2005 and Donald re-emerged, per the BBC, only to find out (via his parents) that he had been dead for more than a decade. That proved to be a problem for Mr. Miller — when he applied for a driver’s license, he was rejected in light of the fact that he was dead. (That makes sense; corpses can’t pass the eye exam.) Similarly, it’s difficult to demonstrate that you’re authorized to work when your death certificate is your best form of ID. So it’s understandable why Mr. Miller went to the judge to ask to be reborn.

But there was a problem. If Mr. Miller came back to life, the former Mrs. Miller may have to repay that $30,000, plus interest. (To make matters even more confusing — but only tangentially so — the former Mrs. Miller was now the former, former Mrs. Miller, having remarried to another man whose last name was Miller. This has nothing to do with Mr. Miller’s status as dead versus alive, but it was weird, so I’m sharing it.) Even though she had forgiven her ex-husband and had moved on, she, per the New York Times, challenged her ex-husband’s wish to be reinstated as a living person.

The court took her side. According to Ohio law, a deceased person only has three years to challenge the declaration that he or she is deceased. Donald Miller missed that deadline by a lot. As such, the judge’s hands were tied and the very living Donald Miller remained very much dead in the eyes of the law.

At least, in the eyes of state law. The judge suggested that Mr. Miller petition the United States Social Security Administration to get a new number issued or the equivalent so that he could live a productive life as a living, breathing human being. He did and seems to be successful. But as a side effect, the Social Security Administration decided to go after his ex-wife and children for the wrongly issued death benefit. (Thankfully, the agency later capitulated.) As of 2014, Miller is still alive, but not according to Ohio.

Bonus fact: Most people have a driver’s license or other state-issued ID for various reasons (e.g. to drive or, as above, to help get oneself a job). But for one Hawaiian lady, one ID wasn’t enough — she needed two. That’s because her name — Janice Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele — features a 35-character surname, which was too long for the state’s driver’s license to handle. As People explained, “the driver’s license, which does not include her first or middle name, has caused her travel problems, including being questioned by police at a traffic stop.” Ms. K also carried around a state ID, just in case, until the state changed the rules in late 2013, allowing for last names of up to 40 characters to appear on driver’s licenses.

From the ArchivesDead Man Walking: Donald Miller isn’t alone.

Related: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you don’t know why this is here, you need to go watch it.