CORONER--DEATH--Issuance of Presumptive Death Certificate When There is a Suicide Note and No Body Has Been Found
RCW 70.58.390 authorizes the issuance of a presumptive death certificate if there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to indicate that a person has died as a result of an accident or natural disaster. A presumptive death certificate could not issue pursuant to RCW 70.58.390 if the only evidence is a suicide note and a missing body.
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May 20, 1992
HonorableArthur D. Curtis
Clark County Prosecuting Attorney
Post Office Box 5000
Vancouver, Washington 98668
Cite as: AGO 1992 No. 6
Dear Mr. Curtis:
By letter previously acknowledged, you requested our opinion on a question which we paraphrase as follows:
Is the existence of a credible suicide note sufficient to authorize a county coroner, medical examiner or prosecuting attorney to issue a presumptive death certificate pursuant to RCW 70.58.390 when the author of the note is missing and no body has been found?
For the reasons set out in the following analysis, we answer your question in the negative.
RCW 70.58.390 was enacted in 1981 in response to the eruption of Mount St. Helens and AGO 1980 No. 15 (copy enclosed). In AGO 1980 No. 15 we concluded that RCW 70.58.160-.180 did not empower a county coroner to issue a presumptive death certificate based on circumstantial evidence of death in situations where no body has been found. Therefore, it was not possible to issue presumptive death certificates when bodies could not be recovered after the eruption.
To solve this problem the Legislature enacted RCW 70.58.390. The text of RCW 70.58.390, Laws of 1981, ch. 176, § 1, p. 836, reads:
A county coroner, medical examiner, or the prosecuting attorney having jurisdiction may issue a certificate of presumed death when the official issuing the certificate determines to the best of the official's knowledge and belief that there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to indicate that a person has in fact died in the county or in waters contiguous to the county as a result of an accident or natural disaster, such as a drowning, flood, earthquake, volcanic eruption, or similar occurrence, and that it is unlikely that the body will be recovered. The certificate shall recite, to the extent possible, the date, circumstances, and place of death, and shall be the legally accepted fact of death.
In the event that the county in which the death occurred cannot be determined with certainty, the county coroner, medical examiner, or prosecuting attorney in the county in which the events occurred and in which the decedent was last known to be alive may issue a certificate of presumed death under this section.
The official issuing the certificate of presumed death shall file the certificate with the state registrar of vital statistics, and thereafter all persons and parties acting in good faith may rely thereon with acquittance.
(Emphasis added.) The statutory language limits the issuance of a presumptive death certificate when "to the best of the official's knowledge and belief that there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to indicate that a person has in fact died . . . as a result of an accident or natural disaster . . . ." Id. Under prior legislation county officers did not have authority to issue presumptive death certificates based on circumstantial evidence where no body has been found, whether or not the death was accidental. AGO 1980 No. 15 at 7-8. In 1981, the Legislature was careful to limit authority to issue presumptive death certificates in instances where the presumed death was caused by an accident or by a natural disaster.
Thus, when considered against the backdrop of preexisting law (that no authority whatsoever exists for issuance of presumptive death certificates), it is clear that the Legislature intended to grant such authority only under the conditions specified, i.e., where death is caused by accident or natural disaster.
From this analysis, the conclusion logically follows that where credible evidence exists that the cause of death was not the result of an accident or natural disaster, RCW 70.58.390 does not authorize issuance of a presumptive death certificate.
Therefore, if the only evidence is a missing body and a suicide note, we do not believe a presumptive death certificate could issue pursuant to RCW 70.58.390. A suicide note is not evidence of an accident or a natural disaster. Indeed, the presence of a credible suicide note could lead to the conclusion that the missing person was dead and that death was the result of the decedent's volitional conduct. RCW 70.58.390 only authorizes a presumptive death certificate for accidents or natural disasters; it does not apply to suicide.
This is not to say that the presence of a suicide note automatically precludes the issuance of a presumptive death certificate pursuant to RCW 70.58.390. Obviously, if there are other facts and circumstances that constitute sufficient circumstantial evidence that the death was as a result of an accident or natural disaster, a presumptive death certificate could be issued. However, in our judgment, a presumptive death certificate could not be issued if the only evidence is a missing body and a suicide note.
We trust this opinion will be of assistance.
Very truly yours,
KENNETH O. EIKENBERRY
J. LAWRENCE CONIFF
Assistant Attorney General
 This is borne out by the Senate Committee Report on SSB 3006 during the 1981 session. The Report Summary states, in part: "The issuance of certificates of presumptive death in natural disasters is authorized where it is unlikely that the bodies will be recovered."