(WASHINGTON) — The husband of Brenda Heist, the Pennsylvania mother who vanished 11 years ago and reappeared in Florida last week, may now face a legal battle over the $100,000 in insurance money he was paid when Heist was declared dead.
Brenda Heist disappeared in 2002 after dropping off her two kids at a Lititz, Pa., school. She went to a park where she cried over her the divorce she was going through, she has told police. She was discovered in this distraught state by three strangers and on a whim she decided to take off with them and hitchhike to Florida, where she lived homeless for several years.
During her disappearance, her husband Lee Heist was left to raise their two kids, who were 8 and 12 at the time.
“We experienced the loss of a house, and car, a job and unemployment for over a year-and-a-half,” Heist said at a news conference earlier this week. “Meaning we lost everything, we moved into assisted housing … It was not an easy issue.”
By law, Lee Heist was not able to declare his wife dead for seven years, which he did in a Lancaster County court on June 10, 2009. Afterwards he collected $100,000 on the insurance policy taken out on his wife, according to the Intelligencer Journal.
Now, her reappearance may mean that he will have to give the money back – plus interest.
Life insurance expert Steve Weisbart told ABC News that the complicated situation Lee Heist found himself in is “far outside of the realm of the normal,” but in all likelihood, he will have to return the money.
“The general rule is, because she is in fact alive, the insurance company is entitled to recover the money, plus interest,” Weisbart said. “He did nothing wrong, but the policy said, ‘We’ll pay you as a beneficiary when she’s dead.’ She’s not dead, even though he got the money in error.”
Such a case could go to court and eventually a jury, Weisbart said. In that case, jurors might be more sympathetic to Lee Heist’s hardship and situation. He said that media pressure could be a factor on an insurance company that isn’t looking for a bad public image.
Lancaster County attorney John Pyfer said that he can see both sides to the case, but is fairly confident that Lee Heist will not be paying anything back.
“The insurance company would have to prove that [Heist] knew, or had reason to know that she was alive, and it was some sort of quasi-conspiracy, that he did something illegal,” Pyfer told ABC News. “That he wasn’t telling the truth. And there’s no evidence to lead to that.”
Lee Heist was financially hurt when his wife vanished. With no one to watch his young children, he had to quit his job in order to look after them. And with her disappearance, the family also lost out on her financial support. Brenda Heist had been a bookkeeper for a car dealership.
“It seems to me, he did everything that he possibly he could to have found his wife,” Pyfer said.
Speaking with reporters this week, Lee Heist, who is now remarried, confirmed that he collected on his ex-wife’s insurance policy. He would not tell reporters the amount, or what he expects will happen.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Tal Kopan, CNN
Morgan Loew, CNN
Sara Ganim and Eric Levenson, CNN
Paul R. La Monica, CNN