Does Murder-Suicide Trigger the Simultaneous Death Act?
It is sad and unfortunate for all involved when people feel so desperate and hopeless that they resort to violence. As has been verified repeatedly, violence only causes more problems. Venice Beard shot and killed his wife, Melba, and then himself. His wife died immediately, but Venice died approximately two hours later at the hospital. Venice and Melba had similar wills, both providing for a certain disposition of a tract of land if each respective spouse did not survive the other by more than ninety days. The wills also provided for specific cash bequests to nine named individuals if the two died in a “common disaster” or under circumstances making it impossible to determine who died first. The independent executors of both estates sought a declaration as to whether the couple died in a “common disaster” and whether the Simultaneous Death Act contained in Sections 121.001 through 153 of the Texas Estates Code should be applied when interpreting their wills.
The Tyler Court of Appeals explained that being shot in the same episode qualifies as a “common disaster” even though they died at different times and in different locations. The court explained that the language conditioning the cash bequests upon dying in a “common disaster” indicates that the two intended to avoid a bequest going to one of them if they died nearly simultaneously, which is the same intent as the statute. If they did not intend for the statute to apply, they could have used the same ninety-day language used elsewhere in the wills. In contrast, the court reasoned that the bequests of the tract of land, which take effect if each respective spouse did not survive the other by more than ninety days, indicate intent to deviate from the Simultaneous Death Act, which only takes effect after 120 days.
Therefore, the court reasoned that the Simultaneous Death Act should be applied when interpreting their wills, but only after effectuating the dispositions that are to take effect if a spouse did not survive by more than ninety days. This means that will-drafting attorneys should take care when choosing the length of time in survival clauses and be sure to remain consistent with the statute or other language in the will if they want their provisions to be consistent with such standards.
To find out more about murder-suicide in the United States, read the fourth edition of American Roulette: Murder Suicide in the United States by the Violence Policy Center.