The Impact of a Wrongful Death Claim on the Deceased’s Estate

Losing a loved one is never easy but can be especially heartbreaking if they died due to another person’s negligence or intentional act.

While money provides little consolation, you may have a right to seek financial compensation through a wrongful death lawsuit. In this article, we explain the relationship between a wrongful death claim and the deceased’s estate.

Read on to learn what filing a wrongful death action could mean for your loved one’s estate and your inheritance.

Breaking Down California’s Intestacy Laws

If your loved one left a valid will, their estate will be distributed according to their wishes as outlined in the will.

However, if they died intestate — which means they didn’t have a will in legal terms — a special probate court will distribute their assets according to state law. Here is the standard order of priority for inheritance under California’s intestacy laws:

Priority Under California’s Intestacy Laws

If the deceased person was married at the time of death, half of recovery to the estate goes to the surviving spouse. The remainder is divided as follows depending on the surviving family members of the deceased:

  • Spouse only: Spouse takes all.
  • Spouse and one child: Spouse takes half. The rest goes to the child or, if the child is deceased, to their issue.
  • Spouse and two or more children: Spouse takes one-third. The rest is divided equally between the children, as long as they are in the same generation.
  • Spouse and parents or siblings, no children: Spouse takes half. The rest goes to the parents. If the parents are deceased, the rest goes to their children equally if they are in the same generation.
  • Children and parents, no spouse: Everything is equally divided between the children, as long as they are in the same generation.
  • Parents only, no children or spouse: Parents take all. If there are no surviving parents, all shares are divided between their children equally, as long as they are in the same generation.

Children of Different Generations

If there are children of different generations, such as children and grandchildren, the estate is divided into a number of shares equal to the number of children of the generation nearest to the deceased.

Each surviving child in the nearest generation has one share. If any of the nearest heirs are deceased, their respective shares are divided among their descendants in the same manner.

The Relationship Between a Wrongful Death Claim and the Deceased’s Estate

In addition to your share of the estate, you may be able to recover additional compensation for economic and non-economic damages through a wrongful death lawsuit. However, note that you can’t recover punitive damages for wrongful death in California.

Economic Damages

  • Burial and funeral expenses
  • Gifts, benefits, household services, and financial support your loved one would have provided had they lived

Non-Economic Damages

  • Loss of intimacy (for the surviving spouse or domestic partner)
  • Loss of your loved one’s love, care, guidance, assistance, companionship, protection, society, and moral support

Survival Action

Families often combine wrongful death claims with survival actions. While the purpose of a wrongful death lawsuit is to compensate surviving relatives for their losses, a survival action reimburses the deceased’s estate for losses they suffered during their lifetime — such as medical bills and property damage.

Who Is Entitled to Wrongful Death Compensation?

In a wrongful death action, the compensation usually goes to the surviving relatives. Damages are distributed to the following people in proportion to their monetary losses:

  • Surviving spouse or domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children
  • If there are no surviving spouse/partner and children, people who would be entitled to inherit the deceased under California’s laws of intestate succession
  • Parents, putative spouse, children of the putative spouse, and stepchildren, as long as they were financially dependent on the deceased
  • Minors who, at the time of the deceased’s death, had lived in their home for the previous 180 days and depended on the deceased for 50% or more of their financial support

In a survival action, the settlement goes to the estate. The money will then either pay off any outstanding debts and liabilities or go for distribution to the heirs.

Distributing Damages in a California Wrongful Death Action

Under California’s wrongful death statutes, all claimants must be joined in one claim to be entitled to a share of the damages. Alternatively, the deceased’s personal representative may bring a suit for the estate.

If the claim ends in an insurance settlement or jury award, the eligible family members can agree on the distribution among themselves. If you can’t reach an agreement, the court can hold a hearing to determine the allocation of the damages. 

A popular arrangement is to divide the amount equally among all beneficiaries. Alternatively, you may agree to reserve a larger share for the surviving spouse and children, with the other parties dividing the remainder equally among themselves.

What Is a Structured Settlement?

If your wrongful death claim is successful, the insurance company may offer to make the payout in a lump sum or through a structured settlement.

Lump-sum payments, in which the insurer makes the full payment in a single sum, are more common. The main benefit of this arrangement is that it can make it easier to pay for your loved one’s final rites and other pressing expenses.

In a structured settlement, the insurer pays over time in installments. This arrangement can enable you to cover long-term losses, such as a drop in household earnings after your loved one’s death.

Have You Lost a Loved One in a Wrongful Death Accident?

At Khalil Law Group, our experienced wrongful death attorneys can help you seek just compensation for your suffering. We are also happy to explain the relationship between a wrongful death claim and the deceased’s estate and answer any other questions you may have.

Call (714) 617-7870 or contact us online to book your free consultation with a wrongful death attorney in Orange County, CA.

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