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Wrongful Death and Probate: Understanding the Intersection and Legal Processes

Posted by Gregory Robinson | Jun 09, 2024 | 0 Comments

When a loved one passes away due to another's actions, it often leads to two distinct legal proceedings: a wrongful death lawsuit and probate. Both are civil legal matters but serve different purposes. This post aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of wrongful death and probate, how they intersect, and what to expect from each process.

What Is Wrongful Death?

A wrongful death occurs when a person dies due to the "wrongful" actions of another, which can include negligence, recklessness, or intentional misconduct. Both individuals and entities, such as businesses and governments, can be held liable for wrongful death. Examples include:

  • Car Accidents: A drunk driver causing a fatal accident.
  • Medical Malpractice: A doctor failing to diagnose or treat a fatal condition.
  • Product Liability: A company manufacturing a toxic chemical that leads to a deadly illness.
  • Assault: One person killing another in an assault.

Wrongful death claims are civil lawsuits, although the same incident may lead to criminal charges, as seen in high-profile cases like the O.J. Simpson case.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

State laws determine who is eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Generally, the following can file:

  • Surviving Family Members: Spouses, romantic partners, children, parents, and siblings, prioritized by their relationship to the deceased.
  • Personal Representative of the Estate: This could be a family member or lawyer appointed to act on behalf of the decedent's estate.

The damages awarded in a wrongful death lawsuit can cover medical bills, pain and suffering, funeral expenses, and compensation for survivors' economic and emotional losses.

Understanding Probate

Probate is the court-supervised process of administering a deceased person's estate. It involves:

  • Inventorying Accounts and Property: Assessing the decedent's assets.
  • Paying Off Creditors: Settling any debts the decedent had.
  • Distributing Assets: Allocating the remaining assets to heirs or beneficiaries.

Not all estates require probate. If the estate's value is below a certain threshold or if estate planning tools like living trusts are used, probate may be avoided.

How Wrongful Death and Probate Intersect

While wrongful death claims are relatively rare compared to the total number of deaths, they can significantly impact probate proceedings. Here are key intersections:

  1. Appointment of a Personal Representative: In states where only the estate's representative can file a wrongful death lawsuit, the probate court must appoint this individual.
  2. Medical Debt and Taxes: Medical expenses incurred before death and potential taxes on the wrongful death settlement may necessitate probate to settle these debts.
  3. Distribution of Damages: Some states award wrongful death damages to the estate, which then distributes them to survivors through probate.
  4. Approval of Settlements: The probate court may need to approve the division of wrongful death settlements, especially if they involve beneficiaries not named in the will.
  5. Concurrent Proceedings: If a wrongful death lawsuit is ongoing, the estate cannot be closed until the lawsuit is resolved.

Who Receives the Wrongful Death Settlement?

The distribution of wrongful death settlements varies by state and can include:

  • State Intestacy Laws: These laws dictate distribution if the decedent had no will.
  • Family Settlement Agreements: Written agreements among surviving family members.
  • Proportional Distribution: Based on the losses suffered by each family member.
  • Terms of the Decedent's Will: As outlined in the will.
  • Probate Court Discretion: Distribution determined by the court.
  • Dependency Levels: Based on survivors' dependency on the decedent.

States also differ on the types of damages recoverable, with some allowing both economic and non-economic damages and others requiring specific evidence for each type of loss.

Consult a Lawyer for Guidance

Navigating the complexities of wrongful death and probate can be emotionally and legally challenging. Whether you are a personal representative, a family member seeking compensation or looking to ensure your estate plan covers potential wrongful death claims, our experienced attorneys can help.

Contact us today to discuss your case and find out how we can assist you with wrongful death and probate matters.

About the Author

Gregory Robinson

Attorney Gregory Robinson is a native of Alabama. He earned his Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Mitchell Hamline School of Law and holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from Rice University. Prior to practicing law, he worked as a strategy consultant in the financial industry...

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