If an individual elects not to execute a Last Will and Testament, then Florida law makes provisions for distribution of his assets at death. One area where this is of particular note is Florida’s Simultaneous Death Law, found in Florida Statute § 732.601. The Simultaneous Death Law is triggered when two (or more) people die and there is insufficient evidence that that the persons have died other than simultaneously. This is common in fatal accidents, where it is not readily known which individual died first. This can be important when it comes to determining the ownership of joint accounts (passes to the survivor but who was the survivor?), determining the correct beneficiary of a life insurance policy, or who takes under a Last Will and Testament.
Under Florida Statute 732.601(1), “[w]hen title to property or its devolution depends on the priority of death and 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.” The statute also contemplates when two or more beneficiaries are designated to take successively by reason of survivorship, disposition of property held by joint tenants or tenants by the entirety, and insurance policies where the insured and beneficiary both die and there is insufficient evidence that they died otherwise than simultaneously.
The practical effect of Florida Statute 732.601 is that when two people die and their order of death can’t be readily determined, each person’s property will be treated as if they outlived the other. In other words, if a mother has her son as the primary beneficiary of a life insurance policy and her sister as the contingent beneficiary, and both mother and son perish in a plane crash with no evidence as to order of death, then the policy would be payable to the sister as a contingent beneficiary.
As a probate attorney, this distinction is very important, as contingent beneficiaries may have rights of which they are unaware due to the Simultaneous Death Law. The language contained in a Last Will and Testament or Trust (or policy of insurance) can provide differently, but in the event of a Simultaneous Death, it may be to your advantage to speak to a Florida probate attorney regarding the facts.