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Understanding the Effects of the Tennessee Uniform Simultaneous Death Act

Spouses, children and parents, or other persons, who may be heirs of each other, sometimes die because of common accidents or disasters. As well, even in the absence of a common disaster or accident, sometimes spouses die within a short time of each other.  When those tragic events or nearly contemporaneous deaths occur, the Tennessee Uniform Simultaneous Death Act may be applicable.

Under the Act, the operative time period is 120 hours, or 5 days. If a spouse dies within 120 hours of his or her wife or husband, then, that spouse is deemed to have predeceased the other spouse for purposes of receiving homestead allowance, year’s support allowance, exempt property, and elective share.  The presumption also applies, importantly, for purposes of determining who the heirs are when the spouse who died first died without a will (when someone dies without a will, his or her property is distributed according to the laws of intestate succession).

Here is an example of how the Act would apply in a situation where the spouse who died first died without a will: Husband and Wife were married late in life and each has a child by another marriage who is not the child of the other spouse. Wife has an investment account worth $300,000 which she, alone, owns. As well, Wife has made no payable on death or survivorship designation on the account. Neither Husband nor Wife has a will.

Husband and Wife are in an accident. Wife dies at the scene of the accident and Husband dies two days later.  If not for the Act, Husband’s child would inherit one-half of Wife’s account, or $150,000. This is so because, under Tennessee intestate succession law, Husband would be entitled to one-half of the $300,000, and Wife’s child would be entitled to the other one-half.

Because the Act provides that Husband must have survived Wife’s death by 120 hours to be considered her heir-at-law, Husband’s child takes no interest in Wife’s account by virtue of inheriting it from his or her parent, the Husband.

Under the same facts, but assuming that Wife had a will which left all of her property to Husband, Husband’s child would still not be entitled to recover half of the value of Wife’s account (unless Wife’s will contained provisions which explicitly addressed how Wife’s assets were to be distributed in the event of simultaneous death which varied from the provisions of the Act). That is so because the Act also states that a beneficiary of a will who does not survive the decedent (the person who made the will) by 120 hours is deemed to have predeceased the decedent.

The Act provides that the survival of someone in the position of our hypothetical Husband for 120 hours must be proven by clear and convincing evidence.

The Act also applies to life insurance policies and life insurance benefits. Under the Act, if both the insured and beneficiary die, and it cannot be proven that their deaths were not simultaneous, the proceeds of the life insurance policy must be distributed to the estate of the beneficiary.  Assume the same facts as above, but assume that, instead of a $300,000 account, Wife had a life insurance policy which named Husband as the sole beneficiary. Also assume that there is no evidence to prove who died first in the accident.  Under those facts, Husband’s child would receive the entire $300,000 life insurance policy benefits.  That is so because, at Wife’s death, the benefits would be payable to Husband. Since Husband is not alive to collect the benefits, they would be paid to his estate.  Since Husband had only one child, those benefits would pass to his child.