While a wrongful death lawsuit cannot undo the loss your family has suffered, it can ease the financial burden that’s been left behind. If you’ve recently lost a loved one due to wrongful death, you probably have thousands of questions about your upcoming lawsuit. One you may be more tentative to ask is who gets the money in a wrongful death lawsuit and how much could the settlement be worth?
The truth is, when a loved one dies, concerns about money don’t go away. In many wrongful death cases, the loss of a loved one may actually make the family’s financial situation worse. Between funeral costs and the loss of your home’s potential breadwinner, it’s important to understand both wrongful death settlement distribution and how much money wrongful death suits pay out.
What Qualifies as Wrongful Death?
Arizona Revised Statutes Section 12-611 defines wrongful death as a situation where, if the injured party had not died, there would be enough evidence to file a personal injury case. In other words, if the victim could have filed a personal injury case but died as a result of their injuries, the family or estate of the victim can file a wrongful death lawsuit on their behalf.
Wrongful death is typically the result of a wrongful act or negligence. Therefore, according to personal injury law, the individual liable for death can also be held liable for compensation of damages.
Consider two drivers involved in a car accident. Driver A is speeding while intoxicated, which causes them to collide with Driver B. Driver B suffers internal injuries and passes away in the hospital. Driver A would then be found negligent for drinking and driving and would be found liable for all damages incurred by the vehicle accident, including Driver A’s death.
Who Can Sue in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
In the state of Arizona, there is a limit on who can file a wrongful death claim. Generally speaking, this provision only allows the surviving family members of the deceased person or the deceased person’s estate to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
The parties that can file a wrongful death claim are limited to:
- The surviving spouse of the deceased
- Any surviving child of the deceased, including adult children
- Any surviving parent or guardian of the deceased, regardless of the age of the deceased
- A personal representative of the deceased’s spouse, child, parent, or guardian
- A personal representative of the deceased’s estate
Is There a Time Limit on a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Much like all areas of personal injury law, there is a statute of limitations for how long a party can file a wrongful death action. A statute of limitations is a court-enforced time limit that determines how long a victim or victim’s family has to file a civil claim.
Arizona has a two-year statute of limitations to pursue damages on behalf of the deceased, which begins at the moment of the person’s death. So, if an accident occurred on September 5, but the victim did not succumb to their injuries until October 5, the statute of limitations would begin on October 5.
Who Gets the Money in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
There are two types of wrongful death suits:
- Wrongful Death Claim: A suit filed by the deceased person’s estate
- Survival Action Claim: A suit filed by the deceased’s surviving family members
Who gets the money in a wrongful death lawsuit ultimately depends on who filed the claim—the estate or the family.
Who Gets the Money in a Wrongful Death Claim
A wrongful death claim is filed by the estate of the deceased. With this type of wrongful death action, the estate receives compensation for damages. Compensation is paid out to the beneficiaries of the deceased, particularly those who suffered financially from the loss. In most cases, those who suffer the most financially are the children or spouse of the deceased.
If the deceased person’s estate files the claim, the estate will receive the compensation. Once the money is received, the estate will provide a payout to family or friends, as directed by the deceased’s will.
Who Gets the Money in a Survival Action Claim
A survival action claim allows the surviving family members of the deceased to seek financial compensation for their loss. This type of wrongful death action provides compensation for damages the deceased would have recovered if they hadn’t died, such as medical bills and lost wages. Likewise, this type of action seeks compensation for the pain and suffering of the surviving family members.
If the survivors of the deceased file the claim directly, they will be paid directly. However, survivors of the deceased can also work with a wrongful death attorney to file charges. With this route, the personal injury attorney will receive the settlement check and disperse it to the family after deducting the appropriate attorney fees.
What Happens if There’s No Will in a Wrongful Death Case?
It’s fairly common for there to be no will in a wrongful death case, particularly if the victim was young. If there’s no will in a wrongful death case, the surviving family members must select a personal representative to speak for the estate.
If the surviving family members cannot come to a consensus on who will be the personal representative, a court will intervene to resolve the dispute and disperse the settlement.
What Are Examples of Wrongful Death Damages?
One of the most difficult aspects of a wrongful death claim is calculating damages. How can you put a price tag on a loved one’s life? In personal injury law, damages are divided into two categories:
- The financial losses inflicted on the estate because of the victim’s death
- Damages suffered by the family members as a result of the wrongful death
Losses Inflicted by the Victim’s Death
Losses inflicted by the victim’s death are typically paid out to the estate and then distributed among the surviving family according to the deceased’s will. These damages include:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Medical expenses, such as emergency care related to the deceased’s final treatment
- The value of lost wages the deceased would have earned if they had lived
- Property damages due to the event that led to the deceased’s death
- Aside from economic losses, damages inflicted by the person’s death also include pain and suffering endured by the deceased before their death.
Damages Suffered by the Family Members
Damages suffered by family members are typically paid directly to the deceased’s surviving family members. These damages include:
- Lost value of household services the deceased performed, such as lost wages the deceased would have earned if they had lived
- Loss of care, companionship, and guidance, especially in the case of a child losing a parent
- Pain and suffering due to the untimely death of a loved one
In severe cases, such as medical malpractice, the court may award the victim’s family punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded in specific circumstances in which a judge or jury decides the at-fault party was particularly reckless or egregious in their behavior leading up to the wrongful death. For instance, a doctor who performs surgery intoxicated and ultimately kills their patient could be charged with punitive damages. The goal of these damages is to punish the at-fault party and to prevent similar behavior in the future.
How are Wrongful Death Settlements Paid Out?
A wrongful death lawsuit is always filed by a single person, called the plaintiff. This individual represents all survivors able to file the action. The plaintiff can either represent the estate of the deceased (wrongful death claim) or the surviving family members of the deceased (survival action claim).
Wrongful death settlements can be paid out directly to the deceased’s estate or paid out to the survivors of the deceased. If the plaintiff represents the estate, the estate receives the settlement. The settlement is then viewed as an asset of the estate. Next, a representative of the estate distributes the settlement according to the deceased’s will. Alternatively, if the plaintiff represents the surviving family of the deceased, the representative will receive the settlement and distribute it according to the deceased’s will.
In cases in which a legal will and testament are not present, or the court finds the wrongful death to be particularly heinous, the court may determine the proportion of the settlement each family member receives. The court considers the proportion of damages each family member has been subjected to and makes a decision based on this proportion.
For instance, children of the deceased, particularly dependents, are more likely to receive a higher percentage of the settlement due to their financial dependency on their lost parent.
How Long Does it Take to Receive a Wrongful Death Settlement Check?
While some wrongful death lawsuits may settle within one to three months, other claims can take an average of one to four years. How long the claims process takes depends on whether the case goes to trial, if the estate has existing debts, and if the surviving family members can come to an agreement regarding a personal representative.
If all family members agree immediately, and the claim is quickly approved by the insurance company, the settlement can be paid much faster. The average amount of time it takes to receive a wrongful death settlement check is approximately five to six weeks. If the family utilizes a wrongful death attorney, the attorney will process the check first. After removing the applicable attorney fees and paying any existing medical liens from the deceased’s final medical treatment, the settlement is paid to the surviving family.
How Much is a Wrongful Death Settlement?
Arizona law states that damages awarded to surviving family are not subject to the debts and liabilities of the deceased unless the compensation is going to the estate instead of directly to the family. In other words, any remaining student loan, mortgage, or credit card debt is not applied to a wrongful settlement unless the settlement is claimed by the estate.
When damages are awarded, the court uses several factors to determine an appropriate amount of compensation.
Factors that determine the value of a wrongful death settlement include:
- The financial dependency of the survivors
- The value of pain and suffering of the survivors
- The cost of medical, funeral, and burial services
- The historical and lost-future earnings of the deceased
It’s difficult to estimate the average settlement for a wrongful death lawsuit, as the circumstances surrounding these cases vary dramatically. Each case is evaluated individually, so it’s best to seek legal advice from a wrongful death lawyer.
Seek an Experienced Wrongful Death Attorney to Learn More
A wrongful death settlement cannot reverse what’s happened to your loved one, but it can provide you and your family with much-needed financial assistance. Before filing a lawsuit alone, seek a free consultation with a law firm knowledgeable in wrongful death law. Together, you and your personal injury attorney can fight for the compensation you and your family are owed.