The literal meaning of commorientes is “simultaneous deaths“.
The commorientes rule applies for the purpose of determining title to property. It states that (subject to any court order) if two or more people die in circumstances where it is not possible to tell who died first, the deaths are presumed to have occurred in order of seniority, so the younger is deemed to survive to elder. Common scenarios where such “simultanous deaths” occur in air plane crash, terrorist attack, and car accident.
Section 30 of Civil Law Act (Chapter 43, Singapore) provides:
Presumption of survivorship in regard to claim to property
30. In all cases where 2 or more persons die in circumstances rendering it uncertain which of them survived the other or others, such deaths shall (subject to any order of the court) for all purposes affecting the title to property be presumed to have occurred in order of seniority and accordingly the younger shall be deemed to have survived the elder.
Couples often worry about dying together in an accident. In reality, this rarely happens, but it is prudent to cover the possibility when making a will.
For example, if a husband (the elder or older) and a wife (the younger) die together in a car accident and it is not possible to tell who died first, the wife is deemed to survive the husband for the purposes of succession to their estates.
In drafting of Will, due to this rule, it is common to provide a survivorship clause to provide for such a scenario.
For example, a gift in a Will may specify that:
“I, Tom, give all my assets anywhere in the world (“my Assets“) to my wife Mary absolutely, but if she does not survive me by 7 days, I give my assets to my son John absolutely.”
In this example, Mary does not inherit the gift unless she survives Tom by 7 days.
Note that “7 days” is simply stated as an illustration and not as a rule or standard, and the period can be “10 days”, “28 days”, “90 days” or “6 months” as may be preferred by the Testator. The time period stated is arbitrary as it is almost impossible to predict one’s death. However, the preference is not to stipulate too long a period as the beneficiary will have to wait that period before he can apply for the Grant of Probate or administer the estate.
In this example, if Tom and Mary were travelling to New York in a plane where it crashed into the sea midway and all the passengers died simultaneously (where it is not possible to tell who died first), then Mary is deemed not to have survive Tom by 7 days and the gift to her will lapse, and their son John (if he is alive) would inherit the whole of his father’s (Tom) assets.
In drafting such a clause, although it may appear simple, care should be taken in drafting the survivorship to prevent unintentional gifts.