The concept of simultaneous death arises in the field of estate planning and administration when two people, typically spouses, die at the same time, or within a short period of each other, and questions arise as to how to address their estates. The reality of a married couple dying simultaneously is extremely unlikely. However, it still occasionally causes legal issues and questions throughout the United States, because most spouses leave everything to their surviving spouse. When there is no surviving spouse as a result of simultaneous death, there are issues as to: the people or entities that will inherit the combined estate of the deceased spouses, possible multiple probates, and uncertain estate taxes. In an attempt to address these issues, the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act was created, of which Maryland adopted its version, entitled the Maryland Uniform Simultaneous Death Act.
Before the creation of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act, states relied on the common law, which stated that whichever spouse survived the other, even by just a few seconds, would inherit from the other spouse. Many times, this law led to contentious legal battles by heirs over inheritance. Without the statute or any language in estate planning documents, heirs may find themselves in court addressing multiple lengthy, public, and expensive probates when administering the estates of spouses who die simultaneously, adding to the complications and frustrations of death. Additionally, when there are no simultaneous death provisions in estate planning documents, the payment of estate taxes on inherited wealth may result in disagreements between the surviving heirs and the Internal Revenue Service about how estate tax is calculated if it is impossible to determine who died first.
Under the Maryland Uniform Simultaneous Death Act if two people die simultaneously (which under the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act is within 120 hours of each other) and there is no will provision explicitly addressing simultaneous death, the law treats each estate of each person as predeceasing the other person. As a result of this law, each estate passes to the alternate beneficiaries and heirs instead of going to the other spouse’s estate. The statute also establishes that if there are life insurance policies involved and simultaneous death occurs, then the policy will be paid out to the contingent beneficiary, bypassing the spouse.
To have your estate pass according to your wishes without relying on the default statute rules, language should be included in your will or trust addressing what should happen in the event of simultaneous death. This can be done by including a survivorship requirement detailing which spouse should be considered to have predeceased the other and stipulating that the estates be administered in a way that results in the greatest possible tax savings. An experienced estate planning attorney can ensure that your estate planning documents properly address simultaneous death circumstances. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.