Suppose Donald Trump was somehow incorrectly presumed dead. Pence takes the oath and becomes President, and sometime after that it is discovered that Trump is actually alive.

Does Trump get the Presidency back? If so, does Pence get the Vice Presidency back?

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    This report is a (surprisingly gripping) investigation into this sort of scenario which you'll enjoy if you found this question interesting: brookings.edu/research/…
    – dbmag9
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 11:08
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    Just to clarify: You mean the president is e.g. considered brain dead, but after rigorous diagnostic he is found to be alive?
    – lejonet
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 19:30
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    Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question (especially not with examples from fiction) or for political commentary.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 13:13
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    @lejonet - just to be clear, that's not a sly commentary on our current situation, right? Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 19:00
  • @lejonet If you aren't joking, yes, that's one way it could possibly happen.
    – qarz
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 4:46

2 Answers 2


This is a vanishingly unlikely situation.

If the President is missing, there has to be a seven-year wait before they can be legally declared dead. At first the VP becomes Acting President, and if the previous president is found then the Acting President returns to being VP. (Unless the Cabinet declare that the President is incapacitated on his/her return and invoke Amendment 25) Then there is an election and whoever wins that election becomes President. If the old President returns after the inauguration then they don't take power again, as their term ended on the 20th January.

If the President is not missing, but incorrectly declared dead, then the VP would be sworn in as President. If, somehow, the President recovered, then this assumption of power would be void.

As I said both scenarios are vanishingly unlikely, and not discussed in the Constitution, but are well covered in common law handling of missing person probate.

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    Yes, "vanishing unlikely".
    – James K
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 8:11
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    No, all valid, the VP would simply have been Acting president instead of President.
    – James K
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 15:12
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    Why do you assert that a missing President could not possibly be declared dead for seven years in the absence of an identified corpse? There have been plenty of times when U.S. citizens (such as military servicemen) were declared dead after a big battle, a ship sinking, a huge explosion, etc., without a requirement to wait seven years before issuing death certificates for people whose bodies were not recovered and identified. The same could happen to a President. (For instance, if someone dropped a nuke on the White House and it became a mushroom cloud.)
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:02
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    @Lorendiac, in the case of a POTUS, there would be a lengthy and exhaustive search and investigation to try to find them. Without any evidence of them surviving a plane crash, bomb, etc, politics would press the people remaining in charge to declare death, which would likely be enough for a Presumption of death. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_death#Presumption Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:09
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    Don't assume it's impossible. Australia lost one of its Prime Ministers! Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 9:08

A dead president is § 1 of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As people including Brian C. Kalt have noted, a missing president (which covers one who is missing and that people assume to be dead, albeit who is not legally declared dead) is § 4 of the 25th Amendment. A president who is missing is fairly obviously "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office", whether or not xe is actually dead.

A president who was missing and is no longer so, and where the vice-president took over under § 4, goes through the procedure given in that section to regain the presidency, transmitting a notice that the inability does not exist, and gets to be the president again unless the vice president successfully contests it and wins the necessary supermajority in Congress.

The controversial applications of § 4 that people foresee are where it is used for political ends. A president who has gone missing, through accident, kidnap, capture, or some other means, is not really that sort of controversial situation; and indeed Congressional discussions of the original amendment when it was enacted, later in the 1970s, and even earlier in the 1930s and 1890s (which talk about the president being captured or kidnapped) all clearly indicate that a sudden event that renders the president incommunicado, or paralysed, or not locatable, or inaccessible, or in general unequivocally physically unable to perform the job and unable to even communicate that inability (which would rather be § 3 of the amendment), is the aim of the section.

It's not about death. It's about whether there is a lack of a person able to do the job, in the view of the person who would take over. That person takes over temporarily, unless the president is unable even to successfully challenge that, with the system being intentionally weighted in the president's favour.

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