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When Families Argue About Wrongful Death Benefits

By Allen Flatt Ballidis & Leslie on February 17, 2021

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The loss of a family member can bring up a lot of bitter emotions. While you may hope that your family members come together in this difficult time, some may bring up past slights in their grief or argue over inheritance. These issues can largely remain outside of the courtroom, but wrongful death claims can exasperate them.

What Is a Wrongful Death Claim?

Wrongful death claims are civil lawsuits that surviving family members can file if a loved one died because of the negligent actions of another person. These claims are typically filed after a fatal accident, such as a vehicle collision or slip-and-fall. Through a claim, family members can recover compensation for financial and emotional hardships suffered due to their loved one’s death, including:

  • Any remaining medical bills left over from the deceased’s injuries
  • Funeral and burial expenses
  • Lost wages that the loved one would have earned for the household
  • Pain and suffering related to the loved one’s injuries prior to death
  • Loss of consortium, including love, companionship, childrearing, and emotional support for the surviving family members

Wrongful death claims are designed to make the family financially whole after the loss of a loved one in an accident. In order to receive compensation, the deceased’s family must prove that their loved one’s death was the result of someone else’s negligence, such as a reckless driver or careless property owner. However, only certain family members can recover compensation in a claim, which can bring up a lot of arguments if one person believes he or she is more deserving of compensation.

Who Can Receive a Wrongful Death Settlement?

In the state of California, wrongful death claims can only be filed by the representative of the deceased’s estate. This representative may be named in a trust prior to the victim’s passing, but if they do not have one, a judge can assign one to represent the family. Typically, this will be the closest living relative. While this person will represent the family in court, the only individuals who can recover compensation in a wrongful death claim include the deceased’s:

  • Spouse
  • Domestic Partner
  • Children, whether biological or adopted
  • Parents
  • Putative spouse (a live-in partner who is not married to the deceased)
  • Other dependents (such as siblings who relied financially on the deceased)

There is an order of succession in these claims, beginning with the deceased’s spouse and ending with the other dependents.

Can Multiple Family Members Receive Settlement Funds?

Only one wrongful death claim can be filed per death, meaning that all the family members are represented by a single claim. When a family is a tight unit that shared the same common bond of love, care, and loss of the loved one, it is typical for family members to agree to divide the proceeds of any settlement in a wrongful death claim.

Sometimes, unfortunately, there are instances when a relative wants more than is fair. As an example, in one case handled by our office, a “new wife” of two years married a widower 20 years her senior, who was a father of four through his prior 30-year marriage. When he died in a car accident, she wanted all proceeds of wrongful death to the exclusion of the remaining family. In that case, it was necessary to prove that even though she had a claim, excluding the children from his first marriage was unfair. We were successful in advocating a proper resolution and division.

There is also the issue of “Woodwork Relatives” who come “out of the woodwork,” wanting a portion of the wrongful death settlement even though they had very little or no relationship with the decedent. In a number of cases handled by our office, we have literally had relatives “appear” from nowhere when they got word that a relative had died and there was a case pending for financial reward, even though these people hadn’t had contact with the decedent for many years. This can sometimes be very distressing to spouses, parents, and heirs who were close to the decedent. But these woodwork relatives’ claims will be limited compared to primary claimants.

There are also certain legal requirements for divorced parents in wrongful death claims, such as the legal duty to inform other family members about the claim, that can impact the claim.

What If a Family Member Wants a Larger Share?

Orange County courts follow the order of succession listed above when deciding who can receive compensation from a wrongful death claim, but they prefer the family to come to a consensus on how the funds should be divided. If one member is demanding a larger share or the family cannot agree, a judge may need to step in to divide the money.

In these cases, there are several ways to divide a wrongful death settlement:

Financial Needs Test

First, a wrongful death settlement may include an assessment of damages based on the financial needs of one or more of the heirs. A spouse may be suffering the lost income and medical expenses. A small child that was financially dependent on a parent for health, education, and welfare may have a greater need than older emancipated brothers and sisters. A dependent parent may have relied on the deceased to pay rent. All of this can be taken into consideration when a settlement is divided up.

Relationship to the Deceased

In cases involving woodwork relatives, a distinction needs to be drawn between those heirs who were close to the decedent and those who were only related by blood. If these relatives are not entitled to assert a claim or are demanding an unreasonable sum, an effort to limit their recovery is necessary by showing proof of a lack of a relationship with the deceased. Naturally, if they have no prior relationship, their greed can be uncovered for what it is, and their claim limited by the court.


Most families prefer to deal with these disagreements outside of a courtroom, and mediation is one such way. With mediation, a third party will hear all arguments and work with the family to come to an amicable solution. These meetings are much less formal than a court trial, though every member may have legal representation if necessary.

Work With Experienced OC Attorneys

At Allen Flatt Ballidis & Leslie, we understand that you are going through a very difficult time. You may be worried about planning a funeral, managing a household, and dealing with argumentative family members. You should not have to deal with the legal burdens of filing a claim. Let our Orange County personal injury attorneys handle your case for you.

For over 40 years, we have dealt with many complex wrongful death cases and helped families come to harmonious solutions. We can investigate your case, determine who is to blame for your loved one’s death, calculate the value of your claim, and advocate for your rights in an insurance negotiation or jury trial. We can also work with your family to make sure the claim accounts for everyone’s needs. To discuss your case in a free consultation, call Allen Flatt Ballidis & Leslie at (949) 752-7474.

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Posted in: Wrongful Death


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