Carrie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds Scenario: What Happens if my Heir and I Die Days Apart?

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.

What is the purpose of the 120-hour survivorship rule? It can help lessen the chances of inheritance situations that may not align with a decedent’s wishes. For instance, if the rule was not in effect, a decedent’s estate would be subject to an heir’s will if the heir passed away just an hour later in a common accident or disaster.

Imagine if a mother’s will leaves her entire estate to her daughter, and adds that the estate would go to her grandchildren if her daughter passed away first. Meanwhile, the daughter’s will leaves her entire estate to a ne’er-do-well boyfriend with a gambling problem and two children of his own from a previous marriage. In the absence of the 120-hour rule, or some similar provision, if the daughter died a day after her mother, perhaps in the same car accident, then the daughter’s will would essentially determine the fate of the mother’s estate. The boyfriend could take the whole inheritance to Vegas, or use the money to support his children, leaving the mother’s grandchildren in the cold.

The survivorship rule – or some similar provision inserted in our will – allows us to determine who inherits our estate, not only if our heirs pass away before us, but also if they pass away quickly thereafter and lack the opportunity to actually gain our inheritance.

A Tennessee wills attorney can help you determine how your will or trust should handle issues of survivorship, given your family situation, to best reflect your wishes for your estate.

Please contact us today online or by calling 800.705.2121 to discuss your legal options.