Who Can Sue for Wrongful Death and Who Gets the Money?

Understanding the beneficiaries in a wrongful death lawsuit

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 29, 2023

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Wrongful death occurs when someone dies due to another person’s negligence or intentional acts.  

Wrongful death can result from car accidents, motorcycle accidents, defective products, medical malpractice, work-related injuries, occupational hazards, and many other causes. 

A wrongful death lawsuit allows survivors of the deceased person to get financial compensation for losses and financial hardships resulting from their loved one’s death.  

This article will overview who can bring a wrongful death lawsuit. While some things are generally true of wrongful death suits, wrongful death laws ultimately depend on each state. It’s important for individuals considering a wrongful death action to seek legal advice from an experienced wrongful death attorney in their area. 

Who Can Sue for Wrongful Death? 

Every state has wrongful death statutes that set the legal requirements and procedures for bringing a wrongful death claim. These laws determine who can bring a wrongful death claim and the process for doing so. 

Since procedures vary from state to state, it’s essential to speak with a wrongful death attorney familiar with your state’s laws.  

Generally, state laws allow wrongful death suits to be brought by immediate family members or by the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate.  

Typically, the personal representative is the deceased person’s surviving spouse or adult child. Priority is usually given to the surviving spouse. If the person’s spouse was predeceased, one of the deceased’s children would serve as a representative. If the deceased person had no children, the responsibility would pass to another person in the extended family.  

Wrongful Death and Survival Actions 

Depending on where you live, wrongful death isn’t the only type of lawsuit for negligence resulting in death.  

For example, in Pennsylvania, “there are two claims that arise out of negligent conduct resulting in death: a survival action and a wrongful death action,” says personal injury lawyer Jason M. Lichtenstein. 

A survival action is “the decedent’s claim for all compensable damages had the decedent lived,” he says. In other words, had the deceased person survived, they could have brought a lawsuit to recover various damages, including “pain and suffering and loss of earnings.”  

“These damages are considered part of the estate since they arise from the decedent’s losses had they survived,” says Lichtenstein. The decedent’s estate is authorized by state law to bring a survival action to recover these losses. 

A wrongful death claim, on the other hand, is a cause of action “brought only by the next of kin of the decedent,” he says. “It falls outside the estate” and is not subject to Pennsylvania inheritance tax.   

In Pennsylvania, a wrongful death action can recover the “loss of income [as well as] the loss of support, services, and comfort the decedent would have provided to their spouse and children had they lived,” says Lichtenstein.  

For example, say “Dad dies and is survived by his wife and child,” he says. In this case, “the estate is opened, and the wife will likely be the administrator of the estate. She hires a personal injury attorney, who files both a survival action and a wrongful death claim.” 

“The survival action will include all the claims of damages associated with Dad’s case had he not died, including pain and suffering and wage loss,” says Lichtenstein.  

But in addition to this survival action, “the wife and child have a separate wrongful death claim that’s not part of the estate [and addresses the fact that the] child no longer has Dad, [the person] who was the main breadwinner who provided for child’s shelter and food,” he says.  

It’s important to speak with an attorney familiar with your state’s wrongful death laws to ensure that all possible claims are brought on behalf of your loved one and yourself. 

Who Gets Compensation for Wrongful Death? 

Generally, the compensation that is available in wrongful death lawsuits includes: 

  • Medical bills 
  • Funeral expenses 
  • Burial expenses 
  • Lost financial support for the surviving family members who relied on the deceased person 
  • Lost parental guidance 
  • Punitive damages if intentional or malicious acts were involved in the death 

Many factors can play into calculating the specific amount of wrongful death damages, including the age of the deceased and how much the deceased made and would have made in their future employment. 

State laws determine who can be a beneficiary of a wrongful death claim. The beneficiaries are generally the same people who are legally authorized to bring the wrongful death lawsuit—the surviving spouse and children of the deceased. 

If the deceased person was unmarried or didn’t have descendants, the surviving parents will typically be the beneficiaries. Depending on state law, other family members, such as siblings or extended family, may benefit. 

Questions for a Wrongful Death Lawyer 

If you are considering a wrongful death suit, speaking with an experienced wrongful death attorney is essential.  

Fortunately, many attorneys give free consultations. These meetings are a great resource for both attorney and client because they allow the attorney to hear the facts of the case while the client can determine if the attorney and law firm meets their needs. 

The best way to decide whether an attorney is the right fit is by asking informed questions. Here are some good questions to ask during your initial conversations: 

  • What are your attorneys’ fees? 
  • What billing options do you offer? 
  • What is the statute of limitations? 
  • How likely is a wrongful death settlement in my case? 
  • What amount of compensation could I get in a wrongful death lawsuit? 
  • Who should serve as the estate’s personal representative? 

Once you discuss your case with a lawyer, you can decide whether to hire them and begin an attorney-client relationship. 

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs 

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can give you legal help through your entire case. You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.  

For wrongful death claims, look for a wrongful death attorney

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