When someone dies because of another person's negligent, careless, intentional or reckless behavior, the death may be considered “wrongful.” This may lead to legal action similar to, for example, a lawsuit based on a car accident that was someone else's fault. Each state’s laws determine who can sue based on the wrongful death — often spouses, children or parents. The person who sues for the wrongful death may recover monetary damages from the person or company who caused the death.
It’s not uncommon for a wrongful death lawsuit to be filed by the personal representative for the decedent’s estate. The personal representative is appointed by the court to operate as the representative of the deceased, so he can file the lawsuit as if he were the deceased person even if he has no standing to sue on his own behalf. If the personal representative receives money in the lawsuit, the money will be distributed to those who would otherwise be able to bring the lawsuit, such as the decedent’s surviving spouse.
Heirs that are listed in a state’s wrongful death laws may be different people than the heirs who are listed in a state’s intestate succession laws, which apply if the decedent did not have a valid will. Thus, heirs who might normally inherit some of the decedent’s estate because he died without a will may not receive any portion of the money from the wrongful death lawsuit. For example, siblings may inherit from the deceased’s estate but often are not entitled to money from a wrongful death lawsuit.
Once the personal representative receives money from the wrongful death lawsuit, either as a court judgment or a settlement, he can distribute the proceeds to the heirs as provided by state law. Individuals who aren’t entitled to a portion of the wrongful death lawsuit’s proceeds are not excluded from other methods of inheriting from the decedent, and the wrongful death lawsuit usually does not affect a person’s inheritance from the decedent’s estate or receipt of life insurance proceeds.