There are any number of ways a person can inherit assets from another person. They may inherit assets from a trust, through a will or as a designated beneficiary of an insurance policy or retirement account. However, in each case, says Lake Country News in the article “Simultaneous and close together deaths,” the person inheriting the asset is living, while the person they inherited from has died.
What happens if spouses die either at the same exact time or at a time that is very close to each other? The answer, as with so many estate planning questions, is that it depends.
The first question is, did both decedents have estate planning documents in place? If so, what directions do the wills give? Are there trusts, and if so, who are the trustees? If they served as trustees for each other’s trusts, did they name a secondary trustee?
If assets were owned as joint tenancy with right of survivorship, the estate of each deceased tenant receives an equal share of the asset, unless it can be proven that a joint tenant survived the other.
Here’s an example: if a parent dies without a will, is survived by two children, but one of the two children dies only four days after the parent’s death, i.e., fewer than 120 hours, in California, the law presumes that the deceased child did not survive the mother. The sole surviving child receives the entire parent’s intestate estate.
A trust may provide for distributions to alternative beneficiaries, and accounts with pay-on-death beneficiaries can sometimes name contingent beneficiaries. This is another reason why it is wise to have primary and secondary beneficiaries on all accounts that permit secondary beneficiaries. Check to see if your accounts have this option, as not all accounts allow for secondary beneficiaries.
Keep in mind that a beneficiary who survives long enough to inherit might die before receiving complete distribution of his or her inheritance. In this case, that beneficiary’s share will pass through his or her estate plan. Unless there has been advance planning, the undistributed inheritance becomes part of the deceased beneficiary’s estate, where it will be distributed either according to the beneficiary’s will or according to the laws of intestacy of the decedent’s state of residence. In this case, the beneficiary’s estate may need to be probated to distribute the inheritance.
The legal and factual analysis associated with the distribution of a couple who died at the same time or in close proximity to each other varies from case to case. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have an estate plan prepared to avoid your family having to unravel the knotty mess that is created when there is no trust, and no estate planning has been done.
Reference: Lake Country News (Aug. 10, 2019) “Simultaneous and close together deaths”