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Date of Issue: September 16, 2009

Claim requires proof of ‘presumptive death’

A request by Tom Buehler to declare his wife, missing since Nov. 4, 2008, deceased will require proof that a death “is presumed to have occurred.”

Florida law allows for a judge to make a determination of “presumptive death” and order the department of vital statistics to issue a presumptive death certificate, explained James Martin, a Stetson University College of Law professor and probate attorney.

On Sept. 3, Bradenton attorney William Meeks filed a complaint for declaratory relief on Buehler’s behalf. The complaint seeks to declare Sabine Musil-Buehler of Holmes Beach as deceased under Florida statutes.

The defendant in the case is Musil-Buehler’s insurer, Great American Life Insurance Co.

Buehler reported his estranged wife missing Nov. 6, 2008, after the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office notified it had recovered her car following a chase in Bradenton.

The man driving the vehicle, Robert Corona, has pleaded guilty to grand theft auto, but was unable to provide information about the whereabouts of Musil-Buehler.

Authorities said the car contained her blood and some of her possessions.

The last person known to have seen Musil-Buehler is her boyfriend, William Cumber, who said they fought on Nov. 4, 2008, and she left the apartment they were sharing in Anna Maria in her car.

Cumber has since been sentenced to 13.5 years in prison on an unrelated charge. Authorities have identified him as a person of interest in Musil-Buehler’s disappearance and the Nov. 16 arson fire at Haley’s Motel in Holmes Beach.

Buehler’s complaint for declaratory relief states that Musil-Buehler left no will and Buehler, with whom she co-owned Haley’s, is her sole heir and beneficiary of her life insurance policy.

“A condition for payment of the insurance policy is proof of death of the insured,” the complaint states.

Other issues also are involved: “The plaintiff’s marital and legal status with his wife depends on whether she is declared to be deceased,” the complaint states.

Florida Statute 731.103 provides for the issuance of a death certificate for “a person who is absent from the place of his or her last known domicile for a continuous period of five years and whose absence is not satisfactorily explained after diligent search and inquiry is presumed to be dead.”

But the law also states, that “evidence showing that the absent person was exposed to a specific peril of death may be a sufficient basis for the court determining at any time after such exposure that he or she died less than five years after the date on which his or her absence commenced.”

Such cases are not common, said Martin, who in 35 years of practicing probate law has not argued for a presumptive death certificate.

But they do occur.

Martin cited a 1993 case in which the wife of crop duster who had disappeared while piloting a flight between Florida and Colombia brought a breach of contract action against a life insurer for its refusal to pay death benefits.

The circuit court in Okaloosa County had found in favor of the insurer, but the wife appealed and the ruling was reversed.

Martin also offered a hypothetical situation. A group of people went hiking and one person was seen walking over the edge of the cliff. The group searched but found no body.

“There is evidence there to say that person fell over the cliff and met with specific peril of death,” Martin said.

Buehler’s complaint states, “On Nov. 6, 2008, Sabine Musil-Buehler was exposed to a specific peril of death in that the evidence would show that on that date she was abducted and killed.”

The complaint continues, “Sabine Musil-Buehler has not been seen or heard from since Nov. 6, 2008, and has had no contact with the petitioner, family or friends and all reasonable inferences would be that she is deceased.”

The case — seeking a declaration that Musil-Buehler died on Nov. 6, 2008 — is before Manatee County Circuit Court Judge Edward Nicholas.