Kin of man missing for 15 years want closure
They seek court order to declare him legally dead after all search efforts come up blank.
He disappeared without a trace nearly 15 years ago. Now his family, after years of fruitless searching, is seeking a court order to declare him legally dead.
Retired construction worker Sim Toh Hock, who would now be 85, has not returned to his Bukit Panjang flat or contacted his family since heading out for breakfast on the morning of Aug 4, 2004. Notices put up in newspapers and search efforts across the island over the years have drawn a blank.
In a blink, 15 years have passed without a trace of his whereabouts, his family told The Straits Times.
"Of course, we want him to come home," his eldest child, Mr Sim Eng Sua, 65, said in Mandarin. "We've exhausted all ways to find him and we still don't know if he is dead or alive."
A person can be presumed dead if the court is satisfied that the circumstances show he has disappeared without a trace for more than seven years. Lawyers said such cases are rare and the burden of proof on an applicant is a high one.
The younger Mr Sim believes a declaration of presumption of death would bring closure for his family. "We are also growing old. While we are still alive, we should help settle his affairs," said the retired electronics salesman, adding that his father's Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings remain untouched and such matters cannot be left dangling.
The elder Mr Sim, a widower, had been living with his eldest son and daughter-in-law as well as their two children in their four-room flat in Gangsa Road. At 8am every day, he would leave home to have his breakfast at a nearby coffee shop.
His daughter-in-law, Mrs Sim Mei Mei, 63, remembers saying goodbye to him when he left that day. "I told him to take his asthma medication after returning from his breakfast, and he said okay," recalled the part-time school bus attendant, whose two children are now 32 and 35.
But her father-in-law, described in notices as slim and tanned and who was last seen wearing a light brown T-shirt and blue pants, did not return home after over an hour.
"I was worried," said Mrs Sim, who remembers that there was nothing unusual in her father-in-law's behaviour that morning. "It was like any other day. He had been living with us for 20 years and would always tell us where he was going."
The couple combed coffee shops, void decks and parks looking for him later that morning, even roping in their relatives when their brief search was unsuccessful. They made a police report about seven hours after he had left home.
They were perplexed. His belongings, including his identification card, were all at home. He did not have a passport and rarely ventured outside the estate.
"He went out with only money for breakfast," said the younger Mr Sim, who described his father as a quiet and good-natured man who did not get into quarrels with others.
While the 1.63m-tall older man would sometimes forget where he had put his items, he did not have dementia, according to his family.
"It is hard not to think about him, even after all these years," said Mrs Sim, adding that her family chose not to move out of their flat in case the missing man returns one day.
"He loved his family. How could he disappear just like that?"
Mr Sim Toh Hock brought up his four young children on his own after his wife died. He has nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
He is sorely missed when the entire family gathers during Chinese New Year. But they know the chances of him returning home are slim. For years, they spent weekends searching for him in hospitals and places where he might go.
The family also sought help from volunteer group Crime Library, which distributed leaflets and searched for him. Notices were placed in newspapers and requests for information were posted online.
Crime Library has handled more than 10,000 cases involving missing people since it was started in 2000. In more than 90 per cent of its cases, the missing people were found or returned home on their own, said its founder Joseph Tan.
So far, he has helped four other families in applying for presumption of death by sharing its search records.
It is rare for family members to declare their missing kin dead.
There have been only a few applications filed in the High Court in recent years for a declaration to presume a person dead, said lawyer Lim Chong Boon from PKWA Law Practice.
Based on the Singapore Law Reports, there were only four cases between 2005 and last year, he noted. Of the four, two were dismissed.
Mr Lim said that without the presumption of death declaration, government agencies and financial institutions "cannot presume that a person is dead simply on the instructions of his family members".
Often, families apply for a declaration so that they can access and manage the missing person's affairs. Without it, his assets remain frozen, insurance claims cannot be paid out and CPF monies cannot be released.
But the threshold is set "very high", said Mr Lim, who has not filed such a case in more than 30 years of practice. It must be shown that the missing person has not come into contact with family and friends who are likely to have heard from him if he were alive.
Also, sufficient steps must have been taken to ascertain whether the missing person is alive, including placing notices in newspapers, said lawyer Roy'yani Razak of IRB Law.
For instance, if the missing person had been facing financial difficulties or had disagreements with his family, all of which could explain a disappearance, then it could be tougher to obtain a declaration.
Once presumption of death is issued by the court, a missing person can be registered as dead. But this can be overturned if he later turns up alive.
Ms Gloria James-Civetta, head lawyer at Gloria James-Civetta & Co, said it can be emotionally exhausting for the families. In her 23 years of practice, she has handled seven such applications, all of which were accepted. "The thought of a loved one just leaving is something the next of kin would find difficult to accept," she said. "Most families just want to close the chapter, perform the last rites and move on."
From missing to presumed dead
A family member looking to manage his or her missing loved one's affairs must first obtain a declaration of presumption of death.
Certain criteria must be fulfilled for the court to issue an order. However, the burden of proof on the applicant is a high one.
•The missing person must have disappeared without a trace for more than seven years.
•It must be shown that the subject has not been heard from by people he would naturally be expected to contact if he were alive.
•Also, the applicant must have taken sufficient steps to check if the missing person is alive, from making a police report and conducting searches at places he frequented to placing notices in local newspapers and spreading the word online.
If the missing person was having financial difficulties or on bad terms with his family, among other factors, it could be harder to obtain a declaration.
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.