MODERN PROBLEM WITH ANCIENT ROOTS
New York is one of approximately 19 states, along with the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands to specifically adopt the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act in some significant form or another. The law was drafted in 1940 and amended through the decades, last time in 1993. It was written by the Uniform Law Commission in an effort to provide uniformity and the accompanying benefits that uniformity provide across the 50 plus jurisdictions that exist in these United States. Of course each state is free to adopt the uniform act in its entirety, part of the law or just use it as a template to base a similar but different law on it.
New York adopted the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act, at least in part, early on in the early 1940s. By 1944 at least 24 states and the then Territory of Hawaii also adopted the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act. It was designed in large part to address the issue of when two or more people pass away in a common disaster, with no meaningful difference in the order of death. For example, if both father and son or husband and wife both pass away in a tragic automobile accident. Such tragedies were much more commonplace in previous decades with the rapid and significant increase in medical technology. Not surprisingly reports of how the law was resolve such legal technicalities goes back centuries, to at least 1784. Even ancient Roman law had presumptions in place to deal with such tragedies.
The case from 1784 resolved the matter by legal decree, holding that both individuals passed away simultaneously. This is essentially what the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act does. In 2009 New York adopted the most recent version of the the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act, found at N.Y. EPTL § 2-1.6. Specifically, if two or more people who are heirs to one another under New York’s intestacy statute or devisees in one another’s will people pass away within 120 hours of each other, and if there is no will, trust, insurance policy or other document that speaks to how to handle such an issue, then each person is considered to have predeceased each other. There is an exception to the law, which applies if the the application of the law results in the estate of one of the estates escheating to the state. Since the law only addresses situations where there is no proviso in the will(s) or trust(s) dealing with the simultaneous death, the inevitable end result is that the estates will be treated as an intestate estate. The law then helps to prevent two different intestate estate administration cases in the Surrogate’s Court, with all of the added expense, time and emotion cost that comes with each case. It would be better to avoid such needless procedures and pass the assets on to the inevitable final heirs.
MODERN TECHNOLOGIES AND MEDICAL SCIENCE
With the advent of modern medicine and the substantial increase in the life expectancy over the past few decades and the likelihood that these benefits will only increase, it seems likely that the 120 hour window will not be sufficient. Time will only tell, but it is at least sufficient to note that with the relatively large number of states that have already adopted the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act, there is strong incentive to monitor legal developments throughout these jurisdictions to determine if there is a need to enlarge the 120 hour window of time.