Loss of life by two or more individuals concurrently or pursuant to circumstances that render it impossible to ascertain who predeceased whom.
The issue of who died first frequently arises in cases determining the inheritance of property from spouses who die simultaneously. Generally the answer must be derived from all the surrounding circumstances. At common law, the law would not intervene and make the assumption that one individual or another had died first but would await proof, no matter how slight that might be. Since this created a problem when no satisfactory proof existed, various states enacted statutes allowing judges to presume that one individual survived another under certain circumstances.
Because those state statutes that created presumptions proved inadequate, a majority of the states enacted the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act. Although some slight variations exist from one state to another, the law essentially provides that property will be inherited or distributed as if each person had outlived the other. This prevents the property from passing into the estate of a second person who is already deceased only to be distributed immediately from that estate, a wasteful procedure that precipitates additional legal proceedings, costs, and estate taxes.
The Simultaneous Death Act cannot be applied if evidence exists that one individual outlived the other. The act only applies when it cannot be determined who died first. Ordinarily the persons involved need not have died in a common disaster but might have died in different places and under different circumstances, and it still might be impossible to prove that one survived the other. A 1985 Illinois case provides an example of where Simultaneous Death Act was held inapplicable because the court found it possible to ascertain who died first.
Janus v. Tarasewicz, 135 Ill.App.3d 936, 482 N.E.2d 418, 90 Ill.Dec. 599 (Ill.App. 1 Dist. 1985) arose out of a freakish series of events that began in the Chicago area in 1982. Adam Janus unluckily purchased a bottle of Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide by an unknown perpetrator prior to its sale at retail. On the evening of September 29, 1982, the day of Adam's death, his brother, Stanley Janus, and Stanley's wife, Theresa Janus, having just returned from their honeymoon, gathered in mourning at Adam's home with other family members. Not yet knowing how Adam died, Stanley and Theresa innocently compounded the tragedy by taking some of the contaminated capsules themselves. Upon their arrival at the intensive care unit of a hospital emergency room, neither showed visible vital signs. Hospital personnel never succeeded in establishing any spontaneous blood pressure, pulse, or signs of respiration in Stanley and pronounced him dead. Hospital personnel did succeed in establishing a measurable, though unsatisfactory, blood pressure in Theresa. Although she had very unstable vital signs, remained in a coma, and had fixed and dilated pupils, she was placed on a mechanical respirator and remained on the respirator for two days before she was pronounced dead on October 1, 1982.
Stanley had a $100,000 life-insurance policy that named Theresa as primary beneficiary and his mother, Alojza Janus, as contingent beneficiary. The 1953 version of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act, in force in Illinois, provides that if there is no sufficient evidence that the insured and beneficiary have died otherwise than simultaneously, the proceeds of the policy shall be distributed as if the insured had survived the beneficiary. The Illinois Court of Appeals held the act to be inapplicable because a preponderance of the evidence established that Theresa survived Stanley, albeit by only a couple of days. The result: the proceeds of Stanley's $100,000 policy did not go to his mother, Alojza, as contingent beneficiary, but to Theresa's father, Jan Tarasewicz, as administrator of her estate.
Johnson, J. Rodney. 1994. "The New Uniform Simultaneous Death Act." Probate & Property 8 (May-June).
Waggoner, Lawrence W. 1994. "The Revised Uniform Probate Code." Trusts & Estates (May 1).