Simultaneous Death Laws in Florida

In Florida, a beneficiary under a will or trust can only inherit property from a decedent if the beneficiary survives the decedent for a specified length of time. Yet, the advent of the train, automobile, and airplane brought an increase in deaths of closely related persons in common disasters, particularly husbands and wives. In these unique situations, estates were dislocated, trusts were disturbed, and the law of descents was frequently shunted off its regular course. The legal question thus arose: When a person dies simultaneously with his or her heir or devisee, does the heir or devisee succeed to the person’s property, so the property becomes part of the heir or devisees estate?

In a recent and interesting case from another jurisdiction, the North Dakota Supreme Court released an opinion in the tragic case of Olson v. Estate of Rustad, 2013 ND 83. In the early hours of April 11, 2008, Jeremy Rustad and Heidi Hanna were killed in a plane crash in rural North Dakota. Rustad was piloting his Cessna aircraft in which Hanna was a passenger when the plane crashed at around 1:30 a.m. The wreckage was discovered at 10:40 a.m. that morning, and the bodies of Rustad and Hanna were found inside the plane. The National Transportation Safety Board reported that the plane struck a 40-foot tall antenna, and Rustad had most likely failed to maintain clearance during a low altitude maneuver. Furthermore, Rustad’s blood alcohol content at the time of the accident was .05 percent, and autopsy results indicated that the couple’s death was caused by multiple head, neck, chest, abdominal, pelvic, and extremity injuries from the crash. Relying on North Dakota’s simultaneous death statutes, the Supreme Court concluded that Heidi Hanna had died simultaneous with Jeremy Rustad.

The above story demonstrates the type of scenario that brought about the need for simultaneous death statutes. Such statutes are modern innovations stimulated by the lack of any realistic or logical solution to the legal difficulties that can arise in the distribution of estates when two or more people are killed in a common disaster with no satisfactory evidence as to the order in which they died. The Uniform Simultaneous Death Act (USDA) indulged no presumption as to who survived last in a common disaster, but rested this question with those claiming an interest in the beneficiary’s property to establish survivorship-something often impossible to do. Provided there was “no sufficient evidence” to determine the order of deaths between a beneficiary and a donor, the beneficiary was deemed to have predeceased the donor. Under this standard, however, courts were often faced with the difficult task of interpreting what constitutes “sufficient evidence” of the order of deaths.

Because of heartbreaking cases such as Janus v. Tarasewicz, 135 Ill. App. 3d 936, 937, 482 N.E.2d 418, 419 (Ill. App. Ct. 1985), where a husband and wife died simultaneously after ingesting Tylenol capsules which had been laced with cyanide by an unknown perpetrator, the USDA was revised in 1991. To remedy the “no sufficient evidence” problem, the new USDA requires survivorship by 120 hours, similar to the Uniform Probate Code (UPC). Under UPC sections 2-104 and 2-107, an heir, devisee, or beneficiary who fails to survive by 120 hours, or five days, is deemed to have predeceased the decedent.

Under Florida’s simultaneous death statutes, the idea of proving survivorship is discarded, and each beneficiary is presumed to be the survivor as to the devised property. Section 732.601, Florida Statutes (2002), provides that when title to property depends on the sequence of death, and it is impossible to determine who predeceased whom, the property of each person is disposed of as if each had survived the other. Fla. Stat. 732.601(1). If the parties dying simultaneously held property as husband and wife in a tenancy in common, the property is divided into equal shares with one share going to the estate of each tenant (spouse). Fla. Stat. 732.601(3). Additionally, when two or more beneficiaries are elected to inherit property successively by reason of survivorship and the beneficiaries died simultaneously, the property is divided into as many equal parts as there are successive beneficiaries and distributed to those who would have taken if each designated beneficiary had survived. Fla. Stat. 732.601(2). Accordingly, under Florida law, Jeremy Rustad and Heidi Hanna are considered to have each predeceased the other, and their respective estates would be distributed accordingly.