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How is the Distribution of Wrongful Death Compensation Handled Among Family Members?

Grieving wife and boy at grave site of family member killed in a wrongful death accident

One of the common concerns that family members have when a loved one is killed due to someone else’s negligence is how the compensation would be distributed among them. Fortunately, Tennessee has established laws that provide guidance in such cases.

Determining the Rightful Parties

It’s important to understand that there are two distinct groups of individuals involved in wrongful death cases. First, there are the parties who have the legal standing to file a lawsuit and manage the legal proceedings. Second, there are those who are entitled to a share of the compensation. These two groups do not always overlap.

Let’s consider a scenario where a man is married, has been divorced, has three adult children, and is currently living with his second wife. If he tragically dies in an accident caused by a dump truck, who would receive the compensation from the truck’s insurance carrier? Who has the right to initiate legal action: the children or the current spouse?

According to Tennessee law, the surviving spouse has the primary right to bring a lawsuit. If the surviving spouse chooses not to pursue legal action or waives this right, any of the three children can step in and file the lawsuit. However, if the children file the lawsuit first and the wife decides to file her own lawsuit on behalf of her husband later, she would have priority and control over the legal proceedings. The claims filed by the children would be dismissed. Notably, the surviving spouse can choose to litigate the claim or reach a settlement that binds the children, without needing their consent. The children are not allowed to hire separate legal representation to safeguard their share of the compensation.

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While the children have the right to claim “consortium damages” from the wrongful death compensation, this claim is not treated as a separate or independent cause of action. Instead, it is considered as part of the overall value of the deceased person’s life.

Distribution of Compensation

In the event that a settlement or judgment is reached in a wrongful death claim, how would the compensation be divided? Here, the law is clear: the distribution of wrongful death proceeds follows the laws of intestate succession, which also govern the distribution of a person’s assets when there is no will.

  • If the deceased person has a surviving spouse but no children, the spouse receives 100% of the compensation.
  • If there is a surviving spouse and one child, the compensation is divided equally between them.
  • In cases where there are two children and a surviving spouse, the compensation is divided equally into thirds, with each party receiving one-third. The surviving spouse, however, will always receive a minimum of one-third of the proceeds, while the remaining funds are divided among the children.

There are some exceptions to this general rule. For instance, if the actions of the surviving spouse contributed to the death of the deceased person (such as in cases of murder or drunk driving), they may not be entitled to any compensation. Additionally, prenuptial or postnuptial agreements may inadvertently waive the right to share in the wrongful death compensation. If the surviving spouse is in arrears on child support payments, they may not receive compensation until the payments are brought up to date, including interest. Furthermore, if one spouse has abandoned the other while still technically married, they may be excluded from receiving a share of the compensation.

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It is crucial to note that these cases are highly fact-specific, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. If you have lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligence, it is advisable to consult with our firm’s dedicated and experienced lawyers. We handle these types of cases on a daily basis and can provide you with tailored advice to protect your interests.

At our firm, we are committed to safeguarding your family. It’s what we do every day.

Protect your rights. Contact us today for a free consultation at 615.807.7900.

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