Some estate planning topics, such as the idea of simultaneous death, can seem rather macabre. But estate planning lawyers don’t simply sit around and think of uncomfortable situations for the fun of it. The legal issues that arise after someone dies can be very complicated, especially when you consider how the property left behind has to be distributed to new owners.
For example, the idea of simultaneous deaths is that a person dies at the same time as someone who stands to inherit from him or her. How does the property left behind by a deceased person transfer to someone who dies at the same time?
That’s what simultaneous death laws are all about, and here is what you need to know about them.
What is a simultaneous death?
Every state has adopted laws that address simultaneous deaths in inheritance situations. Even though these laws differ slightly from state to state, they essentially establish a process that applies when two or more people die simultaneously. If those people stand to inherit from one another, the simultaneous death laws apply.
Can you give me an example?
Let’s say a husband and wife go out to dinner. The couple does not have any children, and the husband has a life insurance policy in which he names the wife as the primary beneficiary. That policy also names the husband’s mother as the alternative beneficiary.
On their way home the couple is involved in a car crash. The husband dies instantaneously, but the wife is injured severely. She goes on to live for another 119 hours, then dies.
In many states, the simultaneous death law says that a beneficiary has to survive the decedent for at least 120 hours. In other words, to inherit, a beneficiary has to survive for more than 120 hours after the person leaving behind property.
So, in this situation, the wife dies before the 120 hours elapses. This means that the insurance policy benefits would not pass to her estate, but rather, to the husband’s mother. If she had 121 hours after the husband, her estate would have inherited the insurance policy benefit. This would have then been distributed to her inheritors as determined by state intestacy law or her estate plan.
What if I don’t like the laws? Can I change them?
You can’t change your state’s simultaneous death laws, but you can create an estate plan that allows you to make up your own rules. For example, if you want to leave an inheritance to someone regardless of whether that person dies at the same time as you, you can create an estate plan that does this.