Florida husband wants wife, missing at sea, declared dead

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A Florida husband, whose wife is believed to have been missing at sea since May, is looking to declare her dead.

Lewis Bennett is planning to file the proper court documents to presume his wife, Isabella Hellmann, is deceased.

Bennett recently responded to a request from Hellmann’s family to gain control over her assets with a motion to dismiss their petition, just a day after the U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search for her.  The court filings include a letter from the Coast Guard, stating that they cannot grant his request to presume Hellmann is dead.

The Coast Guard’s response to Bennett is dated May 19.  Hellmann was reported missing five days earlier.

“Their comment in their letter is that they’ve stopped the search,” Joanne Foster, a maritime law expert, says. “They aren’t looking for her anymore, but they don’t have the legal authority to go ahead and declare her dead.”

Foster says there is no maritime law that gives authority to presume a missing person dead.  That power rests with the state of Florida.

“At this point, legally I think the best option for the family would be to go ahead and have her declared an absentee. At this point, no one knows where she is and then they can go through the steps further that it would take to have her declared deceased,” said Foster.

Following the Coast Guard’s response, Bennett says he launched his own search for his wife in Cuba.  Hellmann’s family says he returned to the U.S. three days later to take his daughter and leave the country.

Bennett’s motion for dismissal of the family’s petition states Hellmann’s sister has no authority over her assets, but rather he and their daughter do.  Court documents also reveal there is no existing will left behind by Hellmann.

An attorney for Hellmann’s sister says the family understands Bennett’s rights to the property.  There has been no hearing scheduled as of yet.