In our society, it is common for spouses, family members, or close friends to travel together for various purposes. As such, whether travelling by automobile through Miami, by plane over Fort Lauderdale, by train through Boca Raton, or even by boat along the coast of West Palm Beach, there is, unfortunately, always a risk that a tragic accident may occur that would result in the death of multiple people. The issue of simultaneous death arises when an individual with a will, trust, or life insurance policy dies in the same accident as the beneficiary of that will or trust, and when there is uncertainty as to which person died first – the testator (creator of the will) or the beneficiary (the person who is designated under the will to receive some or all of the assets of the estate, trust or life insurance policy).
For instance, imagine that a newly married couple creates separate wills that leave all of their individual assets to the other spouse upon death. In this case, the wife would be the primary beneficiary of the husband’s will, and the husband would be the primary beneficiary of the wife’s will. Also imagine that the husband’s will states that if his wife dies before he does, all of his assets would go his brother. Thus, the husband’s brother is the contingent beneficiary of the husband’s will. Similarly, the wife’s will states that, if her husband dies before she does, all of her assets would go to her mother as the contingent beneficiary. Now, the issue of simultaneous death may arise if, for example, the couple gets into a fatal accident while driving from Boca Raton to Miami Beach.
In this scenario, if the husband dies instantly, but the wife dies one week later in the hospital, then it is clear the husband died first. As a result, all of his assets would go to his wife as the beneficiary under his will, and then they would go to his wife’s mother, because she was the contingent beneficiary under his wife’s will. Therefore, all of the husband’s assets would go to his wife’s mother upon his death.
However, if both the husband and wife are killed instantly – hence, they died simultaneously – the result is different. Florida Statute 732.601 provides that, in the event of simultaneous death, the property of each spouse will be distributed as if each spouse survived the other. This means that, under Florida law, for the purpose of distributing the husband’s property under his will, the husband will be considered to have lived longer than his wife, and his assets would go to his brother as the contingent beneficiary under his will, rather than to his wife’s mother. This result is the same for a life insurance policy. Thus, if the husband had a life insurance policy naming his wife as the beneficiary and his brother as the contingent beneficiary, the proceeds of the life insurance policy would go to the husband’s brother, instead of the wife’s mother.
Now imagine further that the couple had recently purchased a house together, and owned the house as joint tenants – meaning they shared equal ownership of the house where the husband “owned” half of the value of the house, and his wife “owned” the other half. In the first scenario, where the husband dies first, his share of ownership of the house is transferred to his wife upon his death, with the result that his wife would own the entire value of the house as an asset included in her estate. Then, when the wife dies in the hospital, the house passes to her mother, as the contingent beneficiary of her estate under her will. Once again, under Florida Statute 732.601 the result is different if both husband and wife die simultaneously. In this case, the value of the house would be distributed equally to the husband’s brother and the wife’s mother, as the contingent beneficiaries of each spouse’s will.
If you or someone you know lives in the Broward, Miami-Dade, or Palm Beach area, and believe that you have rights to estate property as a contingent beneficiary under the will of someone who died simultaneously with the primary beneficiary under his or her will, it is important that you contact an experienced attorney to help you determine your rights and receive your proper share of the estate. Please feel free to contact the probate litigation team at Chepenik Trushin LLP for an initial consultation.