When a married couple dies simultaneously, they leave behind separate decedent estates. Couples with children generally leave their estates to their kids. Couples without children can draft wills to ensure their estates are distributed as they wish. For example, a childless couple could instruct their estates be divided between their respective siblings in the event of common deaths. If a will does not address common deaths or if no will exists, state intestate and survival statutes govern.
Uniform Simultaneous Death Act
The Uniform Simultaneous Death Act originally stated that if spouses died together, their estates passed to their individual heirs unless proof existed of who died first. For example, John and Mary had no children. They are found dead at an accident scene. If no proof existed regarding who died first, John's estate would pass to his heirs and Mary's estate passed to hers. If, however, John died first, his estate technically passed to Mary before her death and her heirs would then take all.
120 Hour Rule
The 120 hour rule has been adopted in most states. It is part of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act and the Uniform Probate Code. This rule states a spouse must survive his partner by 120 hours in order to inherit her estate. For example, John and Mary had no children and suffer a car accident together. They are both dead when the paramedics arrive. Since neither survived the other by 120 hours, their estates will pass to their individual heirs. The rule saves their families from fighting over who died first in an effort to claim both estates.
Wills and Instructions
Generally, a married couple can override the 120 hour rule by leaving different instructions in a will. Married couples without children are especially wise to state their exact wishes for common accidents. Families are more apt to dispute estates with no surviving children. Married couples can shorten the 120 hours, extend it or opt to divide their estate between both of their families in common accidents. Leaving specific instructions can avoid legal fees, court costs, distribution delays and quarrels.
A person who dies without a will dies intestate. State intestate succession statutes direct the division of these estates. The statutes first leave a decedent's assets to his spouse and children. If a couple dies together, without children, their next closest kin would inherit their estates beginning with surviving parents. Brothers and sisters are next in line, followed by grandparents. If no relatives exist, eventually intestate estates default to state governments.
Maggie Lourdes is a full-time attorney in southeast Michigan. She teaches law at Cleary University in Ann Arbor and online for National University in San Diego. Her writing has been featured in "Realtor Magazine," the N.Y. State Bar's "Health Law Journal," "Oakland County Legal News," "Michigan Probate & Estate Planning Journal," "Eye Spy Magazine" and "Surplus Today" magazine.