Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Each state has its own laws about who can file a wrongful death lawsuit. Most states allow wrongful death lawsuits to be filed by any immediate family members. In most cases, though, there is a hierarchy of who files a wrongful death suit.
If the deceased individual was an adult and was married, his or her spouse will usually file the suit. When most people think of wrongful death lawsuits, they often think of the spouse that is left behind filing a suit. That may be because spouses tend to suffer the most financially from the loss of their partner.
As a married couple, a spouse and his or her partner likely have many shared financial responsibilities. They may share rent or a mortgage, which comes with electricity and water payments, internet, and other expenses. Car payments, recreational vehicle payments, and credit card bills may also be shared.
Because their finances were linked, if the deceased spouse worked, the surviving one will now be without that income. Even if he or she did not have a traditional job, there is value to their time spent at home as well. The spouse at home may have cared for children, saving the cost of childcare. They may also have cared for the home and performed a variety of other domestic duties that now fall on the surviving spouse.
If the surviving spouse was the stay-at-home parent, they may find themselves without any income at all. Things like insurance benefits and retirement funds may also disappear with the loss of the spouse. In the immediate aftermath of an accident, the surviving spouse will face hospital bills, ambulance costs, the cost to repair or replace a vehicle involved in a crash, and funeral costs.
These are only the financial losses suffered by a surviving spouse. Emotional costs are tough to put a price on but are just as relevant.
A Divorced Spouse
If a couple is divorced, the ex-spouse cannot file a wrongful death suit. If the divorce was pending and had not been finalized at the time of death, a suit may be able to be filed.
Civil Unions and Domestic Partners
Some states allow an individual who was in a civil union or domestic partnership to file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the deceased.
A civil union is a legally recognized relationship between two people. This union provides legal protections to the couple that extends to the state level. These protections do not extend to the federal level, and couples cannot receive benefits on behalf of their partner.
However, many states do allow those in a civil union to file a wrongful death suit for a deceased partner. This is especially true if the couple shared a home and finances. Just as a spouse will suffer without the income, moral support, and companionship of their deceased husband or wife, so too will a member of a civil union.
Domestic partnerships are similar to civil unions. Like a civil union, a domestic partnership includes a variety of protections, similar to a marriage. Unlike a civil union, individuals in a domestic partnership can often get coverage under a family insurance policy, take family leave when their partner is safe, and have visitation rights in hospitals. In the case of a death, a domestic partner can file a wrongful death lawsuit in most states.
Depending on the circumstances, in some cases, an unmarried partner who is not a part of a civil union or domestic partnership can file a suit. If a girlfriend or boyfriend is the benefactor of the deceased estate, this may be easier. But even if they are not, with legal help, an unmarried partner can file a suit, especially if the couple’s finances were linked or they were otherwise dependent on each other.
In the absence of a spouse, domestic partner, or civil partner, a surviving parent can file a wrongful death suit on behalf of their deceased adult child. While a parent is less likely to suffer from a financial loss after the death of their grown child, this is not always the case. If an adult child previously provided care or financial help to their parent, these contributions can be factored into the settlement for a wrongful death case. The same is true if the cost of the funeral and burial falls on the parent or parents.
Of course, parents face pain and suffering after the loss, no matter the age of their child. This is another factor in allowing parents to file wrongful death suits, and in calculating a settlement.
If an individual was divorced or never married but had children, these children may file a wrongful death suit at the loss of their parent. Wrongful death suits benefiting children that are under the age of 18 are typically filed by a parent.
Some states do allow adult children to file lawsuits after losing a parent. A wrongful death suit may be easier to bring to court if the adult child has suffered a financial loss as a result of their parent’s death.
If the deceased was married with children, the surviving spouse can file a wrongful death suit on behalf of both themselves and their children. This means that the settlement will include totals for both the spouse and any childrens’ emotional suffering. The cost of raising the children on his or her will also be a factor in determining compensation owed to the surviving spouse.
Adopted children or step-children can also be included in a wrongful death suit if they were financially dependent on the deceased.
Can Siblings Sue for Wrongful Death?
Siblings are rarely financially dependent on their siblings. However, this does not mean that they cannot file a wrongful death suit.
If the deceased was unmarried, not in a civil or domestic partnership, has no surviving parents and no dependents, then other extended family members may be able to file a lawsuit. While they may not be dependents of the deceased, these extended family members may still be heirs to the estate. They may also pay for funeral expenses and other costs associated with the death of their sibling or another family member.
In Utah, siblings and other extended family are legally able to file a wrongful death lawsuit, as long as a closer familial relation or individual who was financially dependent on the deceased does not exist. Other family members that can file a wrongful death suit in the absence of a spouse, parent, or child include:
- Aunts and uncles
- Nieces or nephews
More extended family or even non-related individuals may be able to file a lawsuit if they were listed in a will as an heir to the deceased estate.
Some states allow other family members to file a wrongful death suit while a spouse or parent is still alive, under certain circumstances. For instance, in Colorado, a surviving spouse has one year after a death takes place to file a wrongful death suit. After that, any surviving children have a year to file a wrongful death suit if the spouse has not.
What do You need to Know About Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Now that you know who can and cannot file a wrongful death lawsuit, it’s time to learn how to file a claim. Wrongful death lawsuits can be complicated. While a wrongful death attorney can help make the process easier, there are still a few important things you should know yourself before filing a case.
A Filing Deadline May Apply
All states in the U.S assign filing deadlines to wrongful death cases. These deadlines prevent surviving loved ones from filing a wrongful death suit years after a death has taken place.
In Utah, the following wrongful death suit deadlines apply:
- When a suit is being filed against an individual or a business, the case must be filed within two years of the death.
- If a government body was involved in the death, the wrongful death suit must be filed within just one year.
These deadlines can be extended, depending on the circumstances of the case. For instance, if details emerge years later that indicate that a faulty product or asbestos poisoning led to the death of an individual, a suit may be able to be filed years later. However, if negligence is clear following an accident, it’s best to file the lawsuit as soon as possible to avoid any complications.
There May be Limits on How Much You Can Claim in a Wrongful Death Settlement
It is impossible to place a financial value on the loss of any loved one. Whether you have lost your spouse, a parent, or a child, their death is something that you will deal with emotionally for the rest of your life. Alongside the financial losses that you can put a price on, like funeral costs, lost income, or hospital bills, their death can have a devastating effect for years to come.
Wrongful death lawsuits serve two main purposes. They can help surviving family members obtain some small amount of justice for their loss. It can also help them to recoup some of their financial losses, including those losses that are easy to put a price on and those that are less so.
When wrongful death lawsuits appear on the news, it’s often the cases that carry very high settlements. However, this is not necessarily the norm. Courts seek to award wrongful death settlements that are fair. In addition, most states put limits on the number of punitive damages that family members can file for.
These limits vary depending on the circumstances of the case. Family members should seek compensation from insurance providers first, especially for expenses like medical bills. Then, a wrongful death lawsuit can help bridge the gap by providing punitive damages not covered by insurance.
Only One Person Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
When a person dies, it’s likely that more than one person will be left suffering. In some cases, more than one person may be left suffering financially as well. However, in most cases, only one wrongful death lawsuit can be filed.
This is where the hierarchy of family relations comes in. Extended family members can only file a suit if a spouse, child, or parent has not filed one, within a certain amount of time following the case. Trying to file a suit when there are other closer surviving family members is likely to get your case tossed out.
If more than one dependent, such as an adult child and a domestic partner both try to file a wrongful death lawsuit, who the courts allow to move forward with their case will depend on factors like whether or not a person is listed in the deceased will.
Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit for a Sibling or Other Family Member
Whether you have lost a spouse, a parent, a child, or a sibling, filing a wrongful death lawsuit can help you recoup some of the bills you have faced. It can also provide a small amount of financial compensation for the pain and suffering that you are no doubt facing.
Unless you have extensive legal experience of your own, it’s best to leave the filing and case building to the professionals. A wrongful death lawyer can help you gather evidence, set a settlement total, and present your case in court.
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