Most state laws are quite thorough regarding requirements for declaring a person legally dead. In Pennsylvania, the language of the law is a little vague.
To complete the process, the York Daily Record's article "He was declared dead, then killed two deputies. How?" says that three things must occur:
- The person must be missing for at least seven years;
- Their absence must be deemed unexplained; and
- A judge must rule that an attempt has been made to find the individual.
The bottom line is that the family has to convince the judge they've done all that they can. A judge needs to be confident that the family made a thorough effort to find the individual. Pennsylvania law states that the petitioner must make a "diligent inquiry" into a family member's disappearance; however, it doesn't define exactly what a "diligent inquiry" is.
The family of David Brian Evans, age 68, filed a petition in County Court in 2014 to declare him legally dead. The court granted it. However, Evans appeared just last month at a Maryland restaurant where he shot and killed two deputies. Police subsequently shot and killed Evans.
It's rare that someone would be declared dead by the court but then later reappear. The most frequent reason for declaring someone dead is a legal formality in order to settle an estate.
For this particular family, sister Diane Gentry was trying to settle her father's estate after he passed in 2011, which required that her father's assets be divided among the survivors. She hired an online investigative service and then a private investigation firm to try to track down her brother, with no success. She initiated the process of having David Evans declared dead, and the court agreed with her.
Reference: York Daily Record (March 1, 2016) "He was declared dead, then killed two deputies. How?"