Oklahoma Supreme Court: Sufficient Evidence Of Survivorship In Simultaneous Death Case

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On March 9, 2022, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued the mandate in Pilz v. Bond, an opinion affirming that simultaneous death did not occur as between a husband and wife, thus determining the beneficiaries of the estate based upon survivorship provisions in decedent’s will.

The Facts of Pilz v. Bond

Leslie Cates (Mrs. Cates) executed her Will naming Mark Pilz as a beneficiary only in the event that Mrs. Cates and Gerald Richey Cates (Mr. Cates) should die simultaneously.

The Will provides that “[i]f my Husband and I should die simultaneously as defined herein or my Husband predeceases me, then I give, devise, and bequeath all my property, except as otherwise bequeathed in this Will, to [Mr. Pilz].” The Will defines a simultaneous death as occurring “if there is no sufficient evidence to establish that we died other than simultaneously.” As summarized by the Court:

Mr. Cates shot and killed Mrs. Cates during the early morning hours of January 25, 2018. Mrs. Cates sustained multiple gunshot wounds, including one to the head. Mr. Cates subsequently committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Prior to doing so, Mr. Cates telephoned Mr. Pilz, a longtime friend of Mrs. Cates, and informed him that he had shot and killed Mrs. Cates, that he “may do the same” to himself, and that Mr. Pilz should call 911.

The phone call to Mr. Pilz was made at 6:24 a.m., and the police arrived at Mr. and Mrs. Cates’ residence at approximately 6:35 a.m. However, no entry was made into the residence until a special-operations team forcefully entered at 9:29 a.m., at which time Mr. and Mrs. Cates were found dead in their bedroom. No shots were fired after the police arrived, and it is undisputed Mr. Cates shot himself sometime after his phone call to Mr. Pilz and before the time the police arrived.

Austin and Lindsey Bond are Mrs. Cates’ children from a previous marriage.  Mr. Bond filed a petition seeking appointment as interim and special administrator, and asserted that he and Ms. Bond were the only heirs of Mrs. Cates.

A trial was held on whether there was a simultaneous death. A forensic pathologist testified that it was highly unlikely that Mr. Cates died first, and that there was a 90% likelihood that Mrs. Cates died first.

The trial court determined that Mr. and Mrs. Cates did not die simultaneously, and that Mr. Pilz was therefore not a beneficiary of Mrs. Cates’ estate.

Mr. Pilz moved for a new trial, which was denied.  Mr. Pilz then appealed.

What Is Simultaneous Death Under Oklahoma Law?

Section 1001 of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act (the Act), 58 O.S. 2011 §§ 1001-1008, provides as follows:

Where the title to property or the devolution thereof depends upon priority of death of two or more persons and there is no sufficient evidence to establish that the persons have died otherwise than simultaneously, the property of each person shall be disposed of as if he had survived, except as provided otherwise in this act.

Many people put survivorship provisions in their wills, requiring a beneficiary to survive them by a certain amount of time in order to inherit from their estate.  Here, the will required a simultaneous death for Mr. Pilz to inherit under Mrs. Cates’ will, or that Mr. Cates predeceased Mrs. Cates.

How Do You Prove Survivorship Under Oklahoma Law?

Oklahoma law requires “sufficient evidence” to establish that the persons died otherwise than simultaneously.  “[A] preponderance of the evidence is equivalent to the ‘sufficient evidence’ of survivorship referred to in the [Oklahoma Simultaneous Death] Act.” In re Estates of Perry2001 OK CIV APP 136, ¶ 5, 40 P.3d 492, cert. denied (citations omitted). Thus, “parties seeking to avoid the implications of the Act must prove that the decedents died ‘otherwise than simultaneously’ by a preponderance of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 6 (footnote omitted). The Perry Court adopted the rules from other jurisdictions that

if there is any sufficient evidence that either party survived the other, even when the deaths occur at substantially the same time, the [Act] is inapplicable and the question of survivorship must be determined as any other fact. . . . [C]ourts have rejected claims that deaths which occur substantially or approximately at the same time are simultaneous under the Act. Survivorship may be proven by direct or circumstantial evidence and the issue is one of fact for the trial court’s determination. The trial court’s decision on survivorship is a finding of fact. To avoid the implications of the Act, it is necessary to prove only that one party survived the other by at least one second.

Id. ¶ 13 (emphasis added) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citations omitted).

Expert Medical Testimony Is Not Required To Prove Survivorship Under Oklahoma Law

Expert medical witness testimony is not required to prove survivorship under Oklahoma law.  Lay testimony may provide sufficient evidence of survivorship under the Oklahoma Uniform Simultaneous Death Act.

Here, Appellees did present expert testimony as to survivorship, presenting in explicit detail set forth at length in the Oklahoma Supreme Court opinion how the deaths occurred.

In addition, Mr. Pilz testified at trial that during the call Mr. Cates stated to him, “I just shot [Mrs. Cates]. I shot her in the head. She’s dead.” Mr. Pilz testified that Mr. Cates further stated: “She stole $7,000 of my money and bought [her daughter] a car. When I objected, she laughed at me. I put an end to that. I may do the same. Call 911.”

The Court stated:

Moreover, as Mr. Pilz acknowledges in his appellate brief, a neighbor of Mr. and Mrs. Cates told the police that she heard a loud bang only a few minutes before the officers arrived. No further shots were heard. Thus, according to the undisputed timeline of events, Mr. Cates, who fired the shot into Mrs. Cates’ head at some point in time prior to the 6:24 a.m. phone call, shot himself only a few minutes prior to 6:35 a.m. Although some evidence was introduced that it was within the realm of the “possible” that Mrs. Cates could have survived for “more than three to four minutes” after she was shot in the head, no evidence was presented that Mrs. Cates could have survived her injuries until a few minutes before 6:35 a.m., even assuming the shot to her head occurred immediately before the 6:24 a.m. phone call. Moreover, even assuming arguendo that such a possibility is supported by some evidence, the trial court’s contrary determination that Mr. and Mrs. Cates died otherwise than simultaneously is supported by the preponderance of the evidence presented at trial.

Thus, the Oklahoma Supreme Court, based on the review of the record, concluded the trial court’s determination that sufficient evidence was presented that Mr. and Mrs. Cates did not die simultaneously — i.e., that they died otherwise than simultaneously by a preponderance of the evidence – was not clearly contrary to the weight of the evidence.