We were all shocked and saddened when film star Debbie Reynolds passed away just one day after her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher. Not only is it an extremely emotional time for the family, dealing with two deaths at the same time can complicate inheritance questions. For example, what if Ms. Fisher’s will left half of her estate to her mother, Ms. Reynolds, and the other half to her daughter, Billie Lourd. Since her mother died the next day, who should receive her share of Ms. Fisher’s estate? Should the mother’s will determine where it goes? Or should Ms. Fisher’s will? What if neither of them left a will?
This situation is not as uncommon as you might expect. Simultaneous or near-simultaneous deaths of family members can accompany any serious accident or natural disaster, and should be addressed during the will or trust planning process. Fortunately, the law in most states deals with this issue by requiring that an heir survive a decedent by so many days to be eligible for an inheritance. But a different provision in a will or trust would take priority over that rule.
In Tennessee, as in many states, unless a will, trust, or relevant contract specifies otherwise, an heir who dies within 120 hours of the decedent is deemed to have died first, for purposes of determining inheritance (See Tennessee’s Uniform Simultaneous Death Act). In other words, for example, if Tennessee law applied, since Debbie Reynolds passed away less than 120 hours after her daughter, the mother’s estate would not include any inheritance from the daughter. Instead, Carrie Fisher’s will or trust would determine who receives her mother’s share of her estate.