Who Collects the Award in a Wrongful Death Case?

The individual entitled to file a wrongful death suit varies from state to state. The majority of states let spouses and children of the decedent to file suit. Some states allow the parents to file suit after the death of a child, but there are exceptions to this.

Bringing the Action

All states allow close family members such as spouses, children and parents to bring wrongful death actions. In the case of bereaved parents some states do not recognize wrongful death if the child has not been born alive and then subsequently died. This means that the death of a fetus in these states cannot amount to wrongful death and as such the parents cannot bring an action for damages, whether financial or emotional, after the loss of the child. The personal representative of the decedent's estate can also file the wrongful death suit. Some states allow grandparents, extended family members and legal dependents to make a claim, and there are also restrictions on allowing one family member to make a claim against another family member.

Beneficiaries of a Wrongful Death Claim

In terms of the beneficiaries of the award, this isn't simply given to the person or persons who file the claim. Any money recovered, after reaching a settlement or achieving success after trial, will be put in the decedent's estate. Thereafter it will be distributed in accordance with the requirements of the estate. For example, in Minnesota, a ‘trustee' receives the financial award and then must compile a proposal for the way in which the award should be distributed. The court must approve this proposal and, if the beneficiaries are unable to agree, the court can decide the amount each individual should receive.

It therefore follows that when there is a wrongful death claim the estate cannot fully be dealt with until resolution of the lawsuit. It is not uncommon for the wrongful death award to be the single biggest asset of the decedent's estate. The executor is responsible for compiling an account that details income that the estate has received after the death, as well as any distributions made and expenses accrued. This statement of account is filed at the relevant probate court, after which the personal representative/executor can then distribute the sums as required, and his or her role as executor is complete.

Variations in State Laws

The statutes relating to wrongful death in each state are founded on the same basic principles. However, in practice the rules pertaining to each state can vary enormously. Wrongful death claims can become extremely complex, and may require the input of expert calculation to determine an appropriate settlement. Because of the strict time limits relating to these claims, it is highly advisable to consult a wrongful death attorney as soon as possible.

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