Arizona law, like the laws of other states, allows the surviving family members of the victim of a wrongful death to file a lawsuit seeking damages (compensation) for their economic losses. In this post, we will look at a relatively common situation that can follow a successful wrongful death lawsuit: how the proceeds of such a lawsuit are distributed to the victim’s survivors.
Who Has the Standing to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
In law, a person who has the legal authority to file a lawsuit is said to have “standing” because they are able to “stand” before a court to present arguments or file motions. In Arizona, any person who would be legally able to inherit from the estate of a victim of a wrongful death has standing and is thus able to file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of themselves or on the behalf of the other survivors. In general, standing in a wrongful death lawsuit is reserved to:
A surviving spouse of the deceased victim
Any surviving “natural” or “biological” children
Any surviving adopted children
Any surviving parents of the deceased
A court-appointed or court-approved personal representative of the deceased’s estate
Note that Arizona law does not grant standing to a victim’s surviving siblings, regardless of those siblings’ degree of dependence on the support of the deceased.
If there are no surviving family members who would be legally entitled to inherit from the victim, the family may elect to appoint a personal representative of the deceased’s estate who can, with the probate court’s permission, file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the estate rather than on behalf of individual survivors. The probate court also has the authority to appoint a representative if the survivors are unable to reach an agreement on that matter.
How is the Settlement from a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Distributed?
In most cases, the survivors are in agreement regarding the filing of a wrongful death lawsuit. If a controversy does develop, the subject is practically always the distribution among the survivors of any award that follows such a lawsuit.
When a wrongful death lawsuit is first discussed with an attorney, the attorney will usually ask how any settlement will be distributed among the survivors and if the proposed lawsuit is supported by all family members. These questions are meant to eliminate (or at least reduce) the chances of another, later, dispute.
In those cases where the victim of a wrongful death left behind a valid will, the person named as the executor of that will usually assumes the legal responsibility for supervising the distribution of the victim’s estate in accordance with the instructions contained within the will itself. If there is no will or other evidence of the victim’s wishes, a family member or a disinterested party will be appointed by the probate court to serve as the administrator of the estate.
If there are any “priority” claims or expenses related to the victim’s death, such as medical bills incurred prior to the victim’s death or unpaid funeral expenses the executor, administrator, or personal representative of the estate will settle those expenses before any distributions are made to the survivors. At this point, the probate process is usually placed “on hold” until the wrongful death lawsuit is settled.
Once settled, the proceeds of the lawsuit (minus any costs and fees) are usually added to the estate and are then disbursed according to the survivors’ wishes or as directed by the court if there is no agreement regarding the distribution of the estate.
Under Arizona’s Wrongful Death Statute, only a single lawsuit can be filed seeking damages following a wrongful death. If such a lawsuit is filed by, or on the behalf of, a surviving spouse, child, or parent of the victim and all such legal survivors are parties to that lawsuit, it is the responsibility of all involved parties to reach an agreement how any settlement is to be distributed. If such an agreement cannot be reached, any survivor may ask that the court hearing the lawsuit to decide a fair distribution of the settlement. In the event that there are no legal survivors, or if the legal survivors elect to file a lawsuit through a personal representative of the deceased’s estate, any proceeds from the final settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit will be combined with the estate and then distributed by the court.