Stephens v. Beard, 485 S.W.3d 914 (Tex. 2016).



"Common Disaster"


Husband murdered wife, immediately shot himself, but did not die until a few hours later. Each will provided for legacies to nine named individuals if they died in a common disaster or if their death order could not be determined. The trial court determined that the legacies were effective because the spouses died in a common disaster.


The appellate court affirmed in Stephens v. Beard, 428 S.W.3d 385 (Tex. App.—Tyler 2014). The court held that the murder-suicide was a common disaster because Husband fired both the murder and suicide gunshots in one episode. The court determined it was irrelevant to the classification of the event as a common disaster that Husband “did not successfully kill himself immediately” even though he lived almost two hours longer than Wife. Id. at 388.


On appeal to the Supreme Court of Texas, the court reversed without even giving the parties the opportunity to present oral arguments. The court focused on the well-recognized legal meaning of the term “common disaster” which means that the two parties “die at very nearly the same time, with no way of determining the order of their deaths.” The court held that Husband and Wife did not die in a common disaster because although their deaths were temporally close, the order of their deaths is known with certainty.


Moral:  A murder-suicide will not be considered as a common disaster if the death orders can be determined.