Have a question about how to use the law in your story? Need a character, plot twist or setting? Ask me in the comments section and I'll be glad to answer. I welcome all comments and questions.

Monday, February 7, 2011

If My Character Has Amnesia, How Do they Get ID? Can They Get a Job?

On Litopia Writer’s Colony, I have my own section, Donna’s Domain where members can ask me questions about how the law affects their characters, plot, and settings. Here’s a question we answered on The Debriefer (my show on Radio Litopia – episode where I answered isn’t up yet but should be soon) and I thought it applied to enough stories that I’d also address it here.

Litopia’s J Katrin wrote:

“I have a question about issues of legal identity. If a character cannot remember who she is, and authorities are for whatever reason unable to discover her identity, what options are there for obtaining gainful employment, etc.? Without a birth certificate, you can't be issued an SSN, so what can you do if you don't have someone to take care of you and aren't considered dangerous enough to house in a prison or psych ward?”

Well, I found a real life story that may help with the answer. There’s a man they call Benjamin Kyle who has amnesia. He’s around 60 and they found him in 2004, naked, lying by a trash container. They’ve tried everything - DNA, prints, dental records, FBI databases, NCIC – and they haven’t found any clues to his identity. He lived in a homeless shelter for three years, then a nurse decided to step in and help. Since then, he’s even been on Dr. Phil, had all kinds of medical treatment, and still no luck.

Here’s where the story touches on J Katrin’s question. Congressman Kilpatrick has been trying to help him get a Social Security card. Here’s what Kyle says happened: "They have talked and talked to [the] Social Security [office], and they are adamant that the presumption is that I already have a Social Security card, so they cannot give me another one. They have asked for medical reports, and we have given them all that. Still, nothing."

Without a Social Security card, he can’t legally work. He can’t get a passport. Heck, he can’t prove he is a U.S. citizen. He works odd jobs and lives with the nurse who is helping him. He relies on a church for food donations.

I asked a Florida lawyer I know who handles Social Security issues, Lyle Masnikoff, and here’s what he said about it: “This Social Security question is very interesting. If the person can be identified even though they don't know who they are, I would think that the person would use the same SS# and info to work as prior to the amnesia. However, if no one can identify the person, the person would have to get a new SS # which is not legal unless you have permission from a judge and a court order. Individuals placed in Witness Protection sometimes receive a new social security number, but other than that the chances are slim.”

So there you have it, from real life and from an expert. In these days of Homeland Security, immigration concerns, and crackdowns on employers hiring undocumented workers, your character with amnesia will have a tough time. Their best bet will be to hire a lawyer to try to get a court order to issue a new Social Security card. Otherwise, they’ll have no driver’s license, passport, work permit, entitlement to government benefits – nothing. They’ll have to rely on the kindness of strangers until their memory returns.

A great plotline, don’t you agree? Fantastic question, J Katrin!

If you have questions like this one about how the law affects your story, ask in the comments here or check out Donna’s Domain on Litopia.


Isabelle said...

What's interesting is that when I changed my name when I married, I sent away for my new Social Security card, with my new name on it--and they sent me a new card with a new name AND number! If I hadn't been curious enough to ask about it and honest enough to return the new card, I could have had two SSNs. And they can't make one for this guy? Bureaucracy. Humph.

Donna said...

Interesting, Isabelle. Did they finally get it right after you sent it back? Thank goodness you weren't an identity thief.

Anonymous said...

Question: If this character with amnesia was awarded a new social security number in a court of law and many, many years later is identified as a non-U.S. citizen, would this fictional character be granted asylum or deported?

Donna said...

Good question Moonstone. I'd guess it would depend on the current immigration policy. If they qualified for amnesty, they could apply - otherwise, probably deportation. Unless they had kids or a spouse who could apply for residency for them.

Sarah Petersen said...

Hi there! I have a question that is similar to the one you addressed in this post: how would an immortal get accepted into a US college without a SSN, birth certificate, etc.?

The immortal in my story is actually the one who created the world, and he avoided humans until a little girl gave him a name. Fourteen years later, he's a surgeon working at a hospital in Seattle, using his ability to see and manipulate all life forms to help heal the people he operates on.

So, how would this work? I thought maybe he would fake amnesia or pull a double-bluff (he won't "lie" or make up false details about himself, but he is willing to say something truthful in a way he know will be misunderstood), but since it didn't work out for this poor fellow, I'm doubting it will work for my immortal character. So what other avenues could he take?

All I need is some way he could be accepted into a US college.


Donna Ballman said...

Hi Sarah. If he can manipulate life forms, surely he could get one to issue a ssn and birth certificate for him. Also, remember 14 years ago, pre-911 there wasn't such an insistence on proof of citizenship. If he got through college and med school, that's probably 20 years ago. I wonder if they'd insist on either back then. Things are way more strict now. I'd think it would be the hospital giving him a hard time about proving citizenship and providing a ssn.

angel mena said...

Hello, I had a question about this. What if it was a child? Also, is a court order the only way for someone to get a new social? what if the person appiles for naturalization?

manifestasisanubari said...

How about the series 'John Doe'?

Sherri Taylor said...

In 1983, I know a really long time ago, when I applied for community collage I had to show my ID, and ss card, they also needed copies of my school records. Even back then I had to prove who I was.

Earn Staying Home said...

nice post