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.