What happens when spouses die simultaneously?

Although it is unthinkable, imagine a scenario where husband and wife die at the same time. Even though it may seem unlikely, it happens. Just this past year our firm handled the probates of a husband and wife who were killed instantly in a car accident. When spouses travel together, it can happen. Regardless of whether by plane, train, or automobile, simultaneous death can occur. With wise planning, a couple can avoid undesirable legal consequences caused by their simultaneous death.

So if simultaneous death does occur, how does Florida law treat property that the couple owned individually and jointly? For example, what would happen if the couple had a joint checking account and a house jointly titled. If they die together, what happens to the jointly owned assets? Under Florida law, the first thing that is considered is whether a dispositive document, such as the deceased person's Will or Trust, addressed the circumstance of simultaneous death. Often well-drafted estate documents will have a provision that specifically says what happens if the couple die at the same time. If the dispositive document, whether Will or Trust, says what happens, then that provision governs. So if the couple each had Wills which stated that in the event of simultaneous death, the wife will be presumed to have survived the husband, that provision will control the issue as to assets governed by the Will.

But if there is no governing document or if the governing document is silent on the issue, then what happens? Florida has a "Simultaneous Death Law" contained at Section 732.601, Fla. Stat. That law sets out different scenarios for what happens if persons---including spouses---die simultaneously. With jointly owned property, such as a jointly titled house, the statute provides that "the property so held shall be distributed one-half as if one had survived and one-half as if the other had survived." So in the case of the spouses jointly owning their home, when they die simultaneously and when no instrument addresses the priority of death, then the property goes one-half to husband's beneficiaries and one-half to wife's beneficiaries. The same would be true of a joint bank account.

The Simultaneous Death Law also addresses a circumstance where a spouse owns an asset individually and both die together. An example might be a wife who owns an IRA and names her husband as beneficiary. If both die together, the statute provides that the owner, i.e. the wife, survived the husband. As a result, the IRA will not go to the husband but will go to whoever is next in line in the beneficiary designations.

Finally, Florida's Simultaneous Death Law also addresses a circumstance where a life insurance policy on one spouse names the other spouse as beneficiary and where both die together. In that scenario, the statute provides that the owner, e.g. the husband, survived the wife. As a result, the life insurance death benefits will not go to the wife but will go to whoever is next in line in the beneficiary designations.

It should be noted that although this blog is written to address spouses, the fact is, these principles apply to any two persons who die simultaneously. The implications of the Simultaneous Death Law are complex and can be far-reaching. As a result, couples should seek advice from an experienced estate planning attorney.

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