One of the primary reasons why it is important to have an estate plan is to prepare for the unexpected and unintended. If an estate plan does not take into account certain contingencies, that plan may be dysfunctional and it could lead to an outcome you would not desire.
Simultaneous deaths are some of the most common unforeseen events that can have substantial impacts on your estate plan. These simultaneous deaths can include the death of two spouses at the same time or the death of a parent and child together. Failure to plan for these situations can create significant problems down the line. Your heirs and beneficiaries may suddenly find themselves engaged in a probate battle or watch as their inheritance goes to another person.
So what can be done about simultaneous deaths and estate plans? It's simple: Know what the Tennessee's Simultaneous Death Act, codified at T.C.A. § 31-3-120, says, and make sure you compensate for it in your will or revocable trust.
What Does Tennessee's Simultaneous Death Act Say?
Tennessee Simultaneous Death Act states that
(a) An individual who fails to survive the decedent by one hundred twenty (120) hours is deemed to have predeceased the decedent for purposes of the homestead allowance, year's support allowance, exempt property, elective share and intestate succession, and the decedent's heirs are determined accordingly.
In layman's terms: When someone dies and that person's heir or beneficiary dies at approximately the same time, they are deemed to have predeceased the person who is giving them an inheritance. In order for the heir (the person receiving the inheritance) to benefit from the deceased's estate, the heir must have lived for a minimum of 5 full days after the death of the person who died. If the heir dies within the 120-hour period, he would essentially be passed over for purposes of inheriting the estate.
Why does this matter? It may be best expressed by examples.
Husband and wife are on their second marriage. Both have a child from previous relationships. The husband has an investment account totaling $500,000 owned only by him. They do not have a will. Both husband and wife are involved in a horrific accident. Husband dies almost immediately, but wife dies one day later.
Because the wife died within the 120-hour period, the law pretends that she predeceased her husband, and so she would not inherit even a part of the husband's investment account. Instead, his child inherits the full amount of that account.
Using the same facts about the investment account, in this case the wife survived the husband's death by a full week. As such, she inherited half of her husband's investment account, worth $250,000. Upon her death, the $250,000 will go to her heir, which is her child – the deceased husband's child will inherit only $250,000 and not the full amount.
The husband had a will naming his wife a sole beneficiary. The wife dies within the 120-hour period, so she is deemed to have predeceased her husband. Even though there was a will, the wife still does not inherit the husband's assets but his child will inherit the entire account.
How to Safeguard Assets for Intended Heirs after Simultaneous Deaths?
Fortunately, the Simultaneous Death Act does not stop at the 120-hour rule. The Act states:
(b) A devisee who fails to survive the testator by one hundred twenty (120) hours is deemed to have predeceased the testator, unless the will of the decedent contains language dealing explicitly with simultaneous deaths or deaths in a common disaster or requiring that the devisee survive by a stated period of time in order to take under the will.
Based upon this provision, you can override the 5-day rule by inserting a provision in your will that determines who inherits in the event an intended beneficiary predeceases you or dies at the same time. An estate attorney can help make sure issues of survivorship are comprehensively covered in your will or trust so that your intended heirs benefit from your estate and not someone you do not want to inheit.
The Key Takeaway
To be sure, simultaneous deaths are not a regular occurrence for most families. However, they are more common than you think. Automobile accidents are usually the primary cause of simultaneous deaths and they happen every day. The key takeaway is this: a will or trust is not enough to cover all contingencies. It must be drafted properly, comprehensively, and consider all possibilities. An experienced estate attorney in Clarksville, TN is someone who can help make sure that happens.