Can a Deceased Person's Lawsuit Automatically Be Terminated?

By Cindy DeRuyter, J.D.

Can a Deceased Person's Lawsuit Automatically Be Terminated?

By Cindy DeRuyter, J.D.

Lawsuits can take months, even years, to wind through the court system. If a party to a lawsuit passes away during litigation, what happens to the case? In most situations, a lawsuit does not end when a party passes away. Instead, the probate court appoints a personal representative or executor to manage the deceased person's estate. The personal representative then represents the estate in any existing or new litigation.

Person sitting at a desk with hands crossed looking at a scale of justice on the table

Effect of the Death of a Party

With a few exceptions as noted below, lawsuits generally survive the death of a party. When a plaintiff or defendant in an existing lawsuit passes away, the civil court hearing the case may "stay" the matter, putting it on hold until the probate court appoints an estate representative. The court handling the litigation then substitutes the personal representative for the deceased person's interests. Stays of litigation and substitutions for parties are generally not automatic; the personal representative is responsible for filing motions with the court requesting such actions.

From a practical standpoint, proving or defending a lawsuit's charges is usually more difficult when a party dies, as that party's testimony dies with them unless it was captured beforehand.

While most types of lawsuits survive the death of a plaintiff or defendant, there are certain exceptions. Criminal legal matters end when a defendant passes. Similarly, individual state laws include other exceptions. In some states, claims for pain and suffering or cases charging the defendant with libel, slander, false imprisonment, or other similar causes of action end after the defendant passes away. Punitive damages serve to punish someone for wrongdoing, so, when the defendant in such cases dies, there is no longer anyone to punish.

Personal Representative Appointment

If the deceased person left a valid will nominating someone as their personal representative and if that person or institution is willing and able to serve, the probate court usually appoints them in the personal representative role unless there is a compelling reason not to do so.

If a party to litigation passes away without a valid will, state laws govern. An interested party, usually a family member of the deceased, can petition the probate court for appointment as personal representative. The personal representative then serves as successor in interest for pending legal matters.

Lawsuits Brought After Death

In addition to representing the deceased person's interests in ongoing litigation after a party's death, the personal representative is responsible for representing the estate's interest in litigation brought after the deceased person's passing. If someone sues the estate for damages or challenges the probate administration or if the estate has rights which can be pursued through legal action, the personal representative handles such matters.

If a loved one passed away while a lawsuit was still pending, it does not mean the legal case is over. However, the estate needs someone who can represent the deceased person's interests in court. Use an online service provider offering probate and executor assistance or hire a probate attorney to help navigate the probate process.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.