Proof of Life: Understanding the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act

It’s more common than most people realize to have spouses, relatives or other beneficiaries die at the same time or in close proximity to the decedent. Sometimes this occurs due to a common accident (car, plane, etc.) while other times we see spouses simply loose the will to live upon the death of their husband or wife. In these circumstances, Personal Representatives and attorneys must refer to the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act to determine whether or not party passing after the decedent will qualify as a survivor.

January 2014 brought about substantial changes to the S. C. Probate Code. Included in these changes were significant amendments to the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act as found in §62-1-500 through §62-1-508. In order to be qualified as a survivor after January 2014, you must be able to show that the individual outlived the decedent by at least one hundred twenty (120) hours.

A certified copy of a death certificate is considered proof of the fact, place, date and time of death, and the identity of the decedent. If a death certificate has not been issued because the party is missing or presumed dead, a certified or authenticated copy of any record or report of a governmental agency is considered evidence of the status and of the dates, circumstances, and places disclosed by the record or report. If neither of these is available, the fact of death may be established by clear and convincing evidence, including circumstantial evidence. For example, a person who is absent for a continuous period of five years, during which he or she has not been heard from, and whose absence is not satisfactorily explained after diligent search or inquiry, is presumed to be dead. The death is presumed to have occurred at the end of the period unless there is sufficient evidence for determining that death occurred earlier.

The time of death can become a highly contested matter when it might substantially change the beneficiaries of the estate. A party litigating this issue should understand that although a death certificate may be considered proof of death, another party may contest its accuracy. In order to successfully do so, they too would have to meet the clear and convincing evidence standard to dispute the document.

Now that you’re armed with a better understanding of how to establish time of death, our next post will explain how the January 2014 changes have expanded its relevance to include both intestate (no last will exists) and testate (the decedent left a will) estates.

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