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Missing, presumed dead: Family can't grieve, estate can't settle

A few years ago, a Florida millionaire disappeared. He had been depressed, news reports said, and he had been mired in litigation against his uncle and former business partner. There were rumors of marital trouble. Still, it came as a surprise to his family when he went missing on June 19, 2012.

Guma Aguiar climbed into his boat that evening and sped out to sea. Witnesses said he was going fast. They also said the weather was closing in, and the sea was choppy. Six hours later, his boat was washed up on a beach a few miles away -- keys in the ignition, navigation lights on but engines not on and Aguiar nowhere to be found. The search was called off after two days.

Within days of his disappearance, his wife and his mother squared off over control of the estate. The court finally appointed conservators.

In both Florida and Ohio, if a person disappears as Aguiar did, he is not presumed dead until the fifth anniversary of his disappearance. Of course, if evidence turns up that he died before the five years elapsed, that date would be recorded as his official date of death.

The law is not without compassion. One or more family members are allowed to petition the court to have the missing person declared dead during that five-year period. They must present sufficient evidence to support the petition -- that is, they must prove to the court that their belief that their loved one is, in fact, deceased is based on more than a hunch.

This is what Aguiar's wife and mother did about a year ago. They set aside their differences and asked the court to declare Aguiar dead. When the court consented, the two women reportedly resumed their battle for control of the man's fortune.

Under the circumstances, their efforts to move on with their lives -- and the lives of Aguiar's four young children -- are understandable. Without the death certificate, Aguiar's will (assuming he has one) is just a piece of paper. Without the death certificate, any life insurance benefits are off the table, and someone has to pay the premiums. His estate and his families lives are in limbo.

In the months following his disappearance, much of the litigation he was involved in was settled. His wife sold off some big-ticket items and put their mansion on the market. The litigation was expensive, though, and the conservators' fees must have been adding up, too.

The Florida court's decision resolves many issues, but it does not answer every question about Aguiar's assets. He owned several properties in Israel, and the Israeli court is under no obligation to accept the Florida' court's declaration. Those properties are at the center of a dispute among his survivors, including his sisters.

Sources:

Huffington Post, "Guma Aguiar: Fate of Missing Fort Lauderdale Millionaire Still A Mystery One Year Later," Linda Trischitta, Aug. 18, 2013

Sun-Sentinel, "Broward judge declares missing millionaire dead," Linda Trischitta, Jan. 29, 2015   

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