Friday, October 11, 2013

5. Living, Though Dead, in Ohio

"It kind of went further than I ever expected it to…I just kind of took off, ended up in different places."

The age of sixty used to be considered quite old, but is no longer.  Especially now, as I approach a decade that was once light years away.  And with all the wonderful advances in health care, nutrition, exercise, and virtuous living, 60 is really the new—59.  But imagine if you had just cleared your sixth decade and suddenly had to prove that you were still alive—and failed to do so.  This actually happened to a man in Ohio just the other day.

Several readers are probably already aware of this sad and bizarre story that was carried by various news services yesterday.  Most of the reports were jocular in tone, playing on the weirdness and irony of the tale.  Donald Miller, who has led a difficult and troubled life, disappeared in 1986, right after he lost his job.  He apparently suffered from alcoholism, among other problems.  He abandoned his wife and two children, and reportedly owed more than 25,000 dollars in unpaid child support.  According to his ex-wife, he fled the state because he was fearful of going to jail.

In 1994, his wife had him declared legally dead.  This allowed her to obtain much needed financial support for the family by collecting on Social Security benefits for the two children.  But in 2005 Miller returned to Ohio—he had been living in Florida and Georgia, among other places, and worked odd jobs to scrape together a living.  He evidently did not seek treatment for his alcoholism, nor attempt to contact his children.  Back in Ohio, it was his parents who told him that he was dead.  Miller attempted to reactivate his Social Security account, get a driver’s license, and later initiate legal action to have his death ruling over turned.  He wanted to be alive again. 

This was very alarming to his wife, and she opposed the legal proceeding.  If he were successful in his case, she would have had to repay the Social Security benefits she had received while he was still deceased. From his family’s standpoint at least, Mr. Miller was better off “dead”. 

But the 61 year old Miller appeared very much alive in court to make his case for overturning the ruling.  However, Ohio state law unequivocally forbids any changes in a death ruling after a period of three years, and the judge had to rule against him.   So the man remains legally dead.  There does not appear to be any recourse to an appeal of the decision.  His “widow” is reportedly satisfied with the outcome in court and does not hold any bad feelings towards him at this point.

Not much sympathy can be generated for deadbeat dads, and there is no point in defending the gross negligence and irresponsibility of these men.  Nevertheless there is a problem in the logic—or illogic—of the system.  With paycheck garnishment rates as high as 50% or more, the incentive to work ‘over the table’ is reduced or eliminated—assuming that regular employment is even possible.  That leaves ‘under the table’ work, which is often sporadic and even hazardous, especially if the work is illegal.  Incarceration appears to limit employment opportunities significantly.

There is perhaps some emotional satisfaction in knowing that deadbeat dads suffer severe financial consequences for their irresponsibility.  But this must be cold comfort if the actual purpose of the law is to secure the missing father’s obligation to contribute financially to his family’s welfare.  How will he?  It seems that with some imagination—if mercy and compassion are out of the question—there might be a solution somewhere between impoverishment and prison.

What happens to these men when they get older?  How many more years does Mr. Miller have to be dead?

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