When tragedy strikes a family, it can leave the survivors scrambling to care for children and handle the household’s affairs. No one wants to think about what happens when spouses, parents and children, or other relatives die together. But after a hurricane, traffic accident, or natural disaster, sometimes understanding Florida’s simultaneous death law can provide guidance during a difficult time.
Hurricane Ian Reminds Florida Families that Nothing is Certain
On September 28, 2022, Hurricane Ian hit the Florida coast as a Category 4 hurricane, bringing with it 150 mph winds and 12 to 18 feet of storm surge. Sadly, more than 100 people died because of the storm, including more than 50 people in Lee County alone. The storm displaced entire families, leaving some homeless and trying to plan funerals for those who did not survive.
Natural disasters like Ian are one of the most common causes for families to experience simultaneous deaths. Many families are prepared for the loss of a single parent or grandparent. They may have estate plans and guardianship designations in place to direct what happens after an unexpected death. But when an accident, natural disaster, or other event takes multiple family members at the same time, it raises questions about how their estates will be handled.
Survivorship Laws in the Face of Disaster
When Florida courts distribute a person’s estate, they generally do so based on who was alive and entitled to inherit at the moment of a person’s death. There are provisions for children conceived before but born after a person’s death. However, with this exception, a beneficiary must be alive at the time of the decedent’s death to receive a share of the inheritance. Otherwise, the portion they are entitled to will pass to their heirs, or the next level of priority in the deceased’s will (see below).
This can get complicated when an accident or natural disaster kills two or more family members at the same time. The question then becomes whether a probate attorney can prove that the would-be beneficiary survived longer than the deceased. Sometimes this comes down to medical records or death certificates to complete the grisly task of proving who died first.
Florida’s Simultaneous Death Law
When that information is unavailable (such as when two people died in a hurricane and their bodies were discovered together), Florida’s simultaneous death law can prevent those parties’ assets from going to unintended heirs or even going to the state. The law says:
“[When] there is insufficient evidence that the persons have died otherwise than simultaneously, the property of each person shall be disposed of as if that person survived.”
In other words, if two people die at the same time, the law will treat each person as if they survived the other. If those two people were both beneficiaries to assets or an insurance policy payout, their inheritances will be divided into equal parts and distributed to their successors. If spouses or joint title holders die simultaneously, their interest in the jointly held property will be divided with equal parts passing to each person’s estate.
The primary goal is to prevent the Florida probate court from getting caught in a loop. Imagine a husband and wife each have a Will leaving 100% of their assets to one another. If those spouses die together in a car accident, all his assets go to her, but all her assets go to him. Without the Florida simultaneous death law, the same property would have to go through two different estate administration processes to figure out who would take ownership. However, with the simultaneous death law in place, each spouse’s Will or intestate proceedings can bypass the other spouse, allowing the spouses’ personal representatives to distribute their assets to their children, relatives, or other beneficiaries under their Wills.
How to Keep Simultaneous Death from Destroying an Estate Plan
If you don’t want to depend on intestate law to control the division of your assets after a disaster, the start of Florida’s simultaneous death law gives you a way out. It says “Unless a contrary intention appears in the governing instrument…” That means your Will or trust. You can avoid triggering the simultaneous death law by writing your estate plan in a way that accounts for what happens if beneficiaries die together.
Most often, this involves using language like “if he (or she) survives me” or “my surviving children.” These words of survivorship show that you do not intend the gift to continue to pass down to the person’s heirs according to Florida intestate law. You want the other terms in your Will to apply instead.
Those terms will name alternative beneficiaries. An alternative beneficiary is not entitled to receive the designated assets, insurance payments, or property, as long as the person above them in the chain of inheritance survives. (They may still be entitled to receive their own inheritance under the estate plan). However, if the primary beneficiary of an asset or policy dies, they step in to fill the gap. These alternative beneficiary designations help remove chance from your estate plan. They make sure you control what happens to your assets, even if your children, relatives, or other beneficiaries do not outlive you. The only time Florida intestate law comes into play is if simultaneous death or family tragedy removes everyone named as an alternative beneficiary along the inheritance chain dies before, or at the same time, you do.
Get Help After a Family Disaster
Understanding Florida’s simultaneous death laws can help families facing disaster move forward with peace of mind. At Harrison Estate Law, P.A., our experienced estate planning attorneys can help you plan for the unthinkable. If a disaster has happened, our estate and probate team can help you sort out what’s left and identify the appropriate alternative beneficiaries. We will help you be sure your family members are provided for even after a family disaster. Contact us here or call 352-559-9828 to get help today.