Each year, more than 10,000 people are reported missing to the N.C. Center for Missing Persons. Adults of all socio-economic status, race, and ethnic background disappear for a myriad of reasons including abductions, struggles at home, health issues, trouble with the law, or just a desire to start over. Most adults who disappear are found, but others may not turn up due to memory loss, mental illness, or drug and alcohol issues. (1)

If an adult in your family is missing, you may feel any number of emotions. With a death in the family, you can begin the unsettling work of grief and move forward, but when someone is missing, you don’t know how to take the next steps emotionally. In addition to the emotional distress, there are limited resources to help you know what needs to be done next.

Let’s look at what must happen before a court can declare a missing person as deceased. We will also look at when the court will allow you to settle the estate of the missing person without a death certificate.

First Steps

The Highway Patrol issues guidelines about what to do when a loved one is missing. It is important to follow guidelines and keep a record of what you are doing from the beginning in case you need to prove your diligence in court. The missing may have left on their own with a sound mind, wandered off, or been abducted, but time is valuable no matter why they are gone, so act quickly. You can call the N.C. Center for Missing Persons for more detailed information about what to do at 800-522-5437

  • File a police report 
  • Provide officers with a recent photo
  • Request a “Be On the LookOut” (BOLO) Bulletin to be put out by law enforcement
  • Ask for an organized search with tracking dogs 
  • If the person has a cognitive impairment, ask law enforcement to issue a “Silver Alert”
  • Limit access to your home until law enforcement arrives and collects evidence.
  • Give investigators all facts and circumstances related to disappearance 
  • Let law enforcement know what efforts have already been made.
  • Supply to law enforcement a detailed description with photo when applicable of 
    • clothing
    • personal belongings
    • birthmarks
    • scars
    • tattoos
    • mannerisms
  • Designate one person to answer a home phone if you have one. Always keep paper to take notes and ask law enforcement for a tracer on your home phone. Set up voicemail and caller ID if you don’t already have it. If using a cell, install an app to record your calls.
  • For cases that are older than 30 days, help officers locate dental and medical records.
  • If you have friends who are good with technology, ask them to help locate the missing person’s cell phone, car GPS, or computer location. If a pet is with them who has a locator, try to use that info to find the person.

Find Groups to Help You:

There are volunteers and 501c3 organizations that act as liaisons for families of the missing. NCMissingPersons.org offers help that includes:

  • Canvassing neighborhoods
  • Public forums and a liaison to publicize the missing person case effort
  • Trained professional search and recovery units 
  • Sonar instruments and GPR (ground penetrating radar)
  • Twenty four hour public TIP number
  • Awareness campaigns for missing persons, unidentified persons and unsolved homicide cases on a national level using posters, internet notifications, and social media. 
  • Help with money for rewards 
  • Put up billboards for the missing person
  • Research the missing person to help law enforcement efforts (2)

Assumed Dead

If the person left behind assets like a home or bank accounts, or left children, you may already be living with the assumption that they have died. You may feel like it is time to move forward with settling their affairs. However, there is a process to this kind of situation that must be followed before a missing person can be declared deceased.

More than 30 Days Missing

If you have a missing person in your family who has left accounts unpaid or assets untouched and you have diligently searched for them for 30 days or more, you can bring a civil action in the superior court where the missing person lived. 

Your complaint will need to contain:

  • The name, age, occupation, and last known address of the missing person
  • The date and circumstances of the disappearance
  • A schedule of all his property within this State
    • property in which he has an interest as tenant by the entirety
    • other property in which he is co-owner with or without the right of survivorship
  • Names and addresses of the person who would have an interest in the estate of the missing person if he were deceased
  • The names and addresses of everyone who might wish to make a claim on the estate
  • That a “Receiver” be appointed to take custody and control of the estate of the missing person to manage its disposition

The Complaint Goes Out

This complaint will need to go out according to the rules of the court but will include copies to:

  • The missing person’s guardian ad litem who will be appointed by the court
  • Everyone who has an interest in the estate
  • Everyone who may have a claim on the estate
  • All known life insurance companies of the missing person

Evidence Submitted to Court

Upon the filing of the complaint, anyone can submit evidence why the person is dead or alive. The judge will then make a decision based on the evidence and choose to either dismiss the complaint or make a finding that the missing person disappeared as of a stated date and appoint a Receiver to manage the missing person’s property.

Permanent Receiver Appointed

The permanent receiver will need to file an inventory of the property to the court and under the direction of the judge administer the missing person’s property. 

It is the Receiver’s job to:

  • Take custody of all property 
  • Collect all debts due to the missing person and pay all the debts owed by him
  • To bring and defend suits
  • To pay insurance premiums
  • Manage any business enterprise, farm or farming operations
  • Renew notes and other obligations, obtain loans on life insurance policies, and pledge or mortgage property for loans necessary in carrying on the affairs of the missing person
  • Partition property owned by the missing person and another 
  • Sell, lease, invest and reinvest any or all property, its income, or its proceeds
  • Pay the proceeds of loans and sales or income to support the missing person’s dependents

Keep Track of All Details

It is important to continue keeping track of everything you do to find the missing person. This evidence will be needed in court to prove that you have done everything necessary to find the missing adult. The law in North Carolina does not make it easy to settle a missing person’s estate quickly. This is a long road.

Before a missing person’s estate can be distributed, someone must make an:

  • Inquiry at the missing person’s home, his last known residence, the place where he was last known to have been, and other places where information would likely be obtained or where the missing person would likely have gone
  • Inquiry of relatives, friends and associates, and anyone likely to know anything of the missing person
  • Insertion of a notice in one or more appropriate papers, periodicals or other news media, requesting information from any person having knowledge of the missing person’s whereabouts
  • Notification of local, state and national offices which should be most likely to know or learn of the missing person’s whereabouts.

Time Goes By 

The court cannot assume that a person is dead just because they have been missing for a number of years. The law requires that a judge make the decision based on the evidence provided in court. 

The judge will consider whether the missing person was exposed to a specific dangerous condition or peril when making a decision about a death certificate and keep in mind the dangers brought forward and the evidence shown in court.

Final Decree

After the lapse of five years from the date of the finding of disappearance, if the missing person has not appeared or been found, the judge may make a final finding and enter a judgment declaring that the missing person has lost all interest in his property because of his failure to appear and make a claim. 

It is important to start the proceedings early on or this declaration by the judge could take longer.

Missing or Deceased

Whether the person in your life is determined to be missing or deceased, there is a legal way to take care of dependents and live with their assets and debts while waiting. There is also a procedure to settle their estate if after time passes they do not show up to claim their estate.

Seek Help

If someone you love is missing and you are struggling to pick up the pieces they left behind, do not do this on your own. You need experienced counsel to guide you through the process of making a complaint to the court as soon as possible so that the law is followed regarding their debts and assets. If they left dependents, the best outcome for them is knowing what the law provides for them also. 

At Hopler, Wilms, and Hanna, we have worked with missing person’s cases to reach a conclusion that was satisfactory for the families involved. There is no winner in a situation like this, but we would like to walk with you through the legalities involved in this tumultuous process.


  1. NC Department of Public Safety 
  2. NCMissingPersons.org
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