Order of Death Must be Uncertain to Apply “Common-Disaster” Provision in Will

On March 18, 2016, the Texas Supreme Court considered whether a murder-suicide triggered a “common-disaster” provision in two spouse’s mirror wills in Stephens v. Beard, — S.W.3d —, 2016 WL 1069089 (Tex. Mar. 18, 2016) (per curiam).

The undisputed facts show that Vencie Beard shot and killed his wife, Melba, shortly before taking his own life. Melba died at 8:59 p.m. and Vencie died at 10:55 p.m. The spouses’ wills each contained the following provision: “If both my [husband/wife and I] die in a common disaster or under circumstances making it impossible to determine which of us died first, I bequeath [specified cash amounts to nine individuals].” The executor sought a declaration under both wills that the Beards did not die in a common disaster. The trial court disagreed with the executor and determined that Vencie and Melba did die in a common disaster.

Affirming the trial court’s ruling, the Tyler Court of Appeals defined “common disaster” by separately defining the terms “common” and “disaster” and then combining those two definitions. Under this approach, the appellate court defined “common disaster” to be “any situation where the death of two or more people arose out of the same set of circumstances.” Notably, there was no requirement that it be impossible to determine who died first. Thus, even though it was clear that Melba died before Vencie, the appellate court found that the Beards died in a “common disaster” because the shots were fired in one episode.

The Texas Supreme Court rejected the appellate courts’ definition of “common disaster” as nonsensical. The court noted that the phrase “common disaster” has a settled legal usage and is meant to ensure orderly distribution when the order of death is uncertain. Absent contrary language, “the order of death must be uncertain for a common-disaster provision to become effective.” Without hearing oral argument, the court reversed and rendered judgment that the Beards did not die in a “common disaster.”

By Cassie Garza Matheson on March 28, 2016

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