invisible man standing with folded arms
Invisible man standing with folded arms over his chest against grey background

Every year in the US about 700,000 people are reported missing. Most of them reappear relatively quickly. But on any given day there are something in the neighborhood of 90,000 people who have been missing for an extended period of time.

A majority of those are adults who, for one reason or another, simply walked away from their lives, leaving behind nothing but questions. Some undoubtedly met gruesome ends, but most simply chose to draw the curtain on one part of their life and start over anonymously somewhere else. But is that legal? Does the law allow a person to simply walk out the front door and disappear without a trace?

The Law and the Ghost

Relationship counselors have a name for the practice of disappearing suddenly and without explanation. They call it “ghosting”. The phrase is equally appropriate when discussing family members who, without warning, suddenly walk away never to return. But is the ghost actually doing anything illegal? 

Just as there is no right to privacy mentioned in the Constitution there is no right to disappear mentioned anywhere in our foundational document either. All we have is a bunch of murky case law based on the common law principle that people have the right to choose their own identities. Digging down into the subject reveals there is a fairly lively ongoing debate over what to do with the property and other items left behind by a person who has disappeared. But no debate over whether that person had the right to walk away in the first place.

Reasons Why People Disappear

There are a number or reasons why a person might decide to pull up stakes suddenly and hit the highway. These include:

  • The painful breakup of a relationship
  • Emotional turmoil resulting from the loss of a loved one
  • A long simmering dissatisfaction with some aspect of their life
  • Financial difficulties
  • Boredom

While experts consider these likely reasons why a person might disappear, in most cases, the exact reason is never fully understood and remains little more than a painful mystery.

No Law Against it

The fact is there are no US laws that expressly forbid one from simply putting on their walking shoes and hitting the highway at any time, as long as their disappearance isn’t associated with a criminal act (for instance, disappearing to avoid child support payments or in the aftermath of a bank robbery). You even have the right to fake your own death as long as you don’t then try to pass yourself off as someone else after killing yourself off.

With that said, the things you might have to do after faking your own death, could be criminal acts. Examples of such things include:

  • Assume a new identity  – possible identity fraud charges
  • Not file taxes – possible tax evasion charges
  • File under assumed name – possible tax fraud charges
  • Testify as a witness in court under the assumed name – possible perjury charges
  • Collecting life insurance – possible theft charges as well as insurance fraud charges
  • Involving your spouse in any of the above  – possible identical charges plus a conspiracy charge for each of you

The Right to Disappear Makes for Strange Bedfellows

At a time when our every action is being recorded and stored by big data players, the right to disappear has created some strange bedfellows, including:

  • Advocates for those fleeing abusive relationships – These are some of the most passionate defenders of the right to disappear. They argue that without this right, abusers would be able to track down those attempting to flee their reign of terror. 
  • Survivalists – These folks tend to see the ever more intrusive hand of the government and its allies as an affront to their right to privacy and their legitimate pursuit of happiness. They see the right to disappear as one of the few safeguards the system affords them to live life as they see fit.
  • The US government – The legal foundations of the Witness Protection Program (officially known as the Witness Security Program or WITSEC) lean pretty heavily on the right of a person to disappear, although there’s a difference between someone entering WITSEC and a person walking out the door and not coming back. With WITSEC the government knows exactly who you are and where you are. By contrast, when someone just walks away the government is typically as much in the dark as family members about where the person went and why.

Is Disappearing the Same as Dropping off the Grid?

As technology becomes more and more invasive and private companies accrue ever greater amounts of information about us, our habits, our preferences and more a new phrase has entered the lexicon: “dropping off the grid”. But while this practice is sometimes intertwined with disappearing, it’s not the same thing in and of itself. 

Dropping off the grid means ridding your life of as many aspects of the digital age as you can. That usually means, among other things, closing social media and email accounts, tossing the smartphone, ditching the credit cards, covering the all-seeing eye of the webcam on your computer and using a VPN (if you continue to use the Internet at all, which most won’t). People who drop off the grid often don’t go anywhere. They simply stay where they are and kick all the tech in their life to the curb. 

Is Dropping off the Grid the Same as the Right to Be Forgotten?

In a series of high profile cases the European Union has come down firmly on the side of what it calls the “right to be forgotten”. Those contemplating or studying the phenomenon of the disappeared sometimes confuse the right to be forgotten with the right to disappear. But they’re not the same thing. 

The right to be forgotten deals with old (usually negative) information about an individual that still comes up in search results many years after the fact. The EU has affirmed that in such cases a person has a right to demand Google and other search engines remove this old, unflattering information about them from search results. 

The Bottom Line

There is no law preventing an adult from simply walking out the door and never looking back, as long as they’re not doing so in order to avoid prosecution and they don’t create a fraudulent identity in the process. For those that want to drop off the grid and disappear there’s plenty of help out there. Just keep in mind that when you drop out of life, you’re likely to create years of emotional distress for the people you leave behind.