Who Are the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries?
When someone negligently, recklessly, or intentionally takes another person’s life, the family members of the decedent in Florida may have the right to hold the wrongdoer accountable in civil court for money damages. The lawsuit is brought on behalf of the wrongful death beneficiaries by the court appointed personal representative of the estate of the dead person.
Florida Does Not Allow Damages For the Value of the Decedents Life
In some states other than Florida, the law allows a jury to award damages for the full value of the decedent’s life. In those states, the Jury hears evidence about what the person was likely to do had they lived a normal life and then awards money damages for the loss. Things like whether the person would have gone to college, married or had children are factored into the value of the loss of life. In Florida these damages for the value of the decedent’s life are not allowed. Florida also does not allow damages for the pain and suffering of the decedent up until the time of their death unless the person died from nursing home abuse or neglect.
Florida Wrongful Death Beneficiaries
In Florida, the beneficiaries entitled to recover for their losses are spouses, children, and people legally dependent on the person that died. In addition, parents are entitled to recover, but only when there are no other beneficiaries. The circumstances under which each beneficiary can recover are described below:
- All Spouses All the Time
Spouses are entitled to recover damages for loss of support and services, loss of companionship and protection, and for mental pain and suffering
- All Minor Children All the Time
Minor children under 25 years old are entitled to recover damages for loss of support and services, loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance, and for mental pain and suffering
- Adult Children When There is No Spouse (Except in Medical Malpractice)
Adult children 25 and older are entitled to recover damages for loss of support and services, loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance, and for mental pain and suffering
- Parents of Deceased Minor Children All the Time
Parents of minor children under 25 years old are entitled to recover damages for mental pain and suffering
- Parents of Deceased Adult Children if There is No Spouse and No Children (Except in Medical Malpractice)
Parents of adult children 25 or older are entitled to recover damages for mental pain and suffering
- Legal Dependents
People that are legally dependent on the decedent for financial support are entitled to recover damages for their loss of financial support and services.
Adopted Children Are Wrongful Death Beneficiaries
Children do not have to be natural born related to the decedent by blood to be considered beneficiaries entitled to recover. But if they are not natural born, they do have to be legally adopted before the decedent’s death to recover damages for anything other than financial losses. This means that kids raised by the decedent but no natural born and not adopted are not entitled to recover damages for their loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance, and for mental pain and suffering.
People That Are Not Wrongful Death Beneficiaries
Only the spouses, children, and parents are beneficiaries entitled to damages under the Florida Wrongful Death Act. Furthermore, these beneficiaries are only entitled to recover in the circumstances described above. This means that brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, and other blood relatives are never entitled to recover damages for their emotional losses. These family members are entitled to recover financial losses if they were financially dependent on the decedent. But this is so rare that in reality, it almost never happens.
What Happens When a Beneficiary Dies?
If a beneficiary of the decedent dies, the beneficiaries of the beneficiary do not take over the claim. Instead, the claim dies with the death of the beneficiary. If there are no other beneficiaries, this can sometimes end the lawsuit with no one recovering. When this happens, the person that caused the decedents death may never be held accountable for their negligent, reckless, or intentional conduct. An example of this happening would be when the decedent had a spouse but no children. Since the spouse would be the only beneficiary entitled to recover damages, if the spouse died before the wrongful death lawsuit was resolved, the spouses claim would be limited to lost support and services up until the spouse’s death. The amount recoverable if this happens is often to small to make it worth pursuing.
Who Brings a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
The only person that has the right to bring a wrongful death lawsuit is the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. Often, the decedent has a will that names someone as the personal representative. Most of the time the courts will honor the decedents wishes and appoint the person named in the will as the personal representative. If no one is named in a will then Florida statutes create a list of people that have priority.
What Happens When Beneficiaries Do Not Get Along?
Sometimes there is hostility between the person named the personal representative and the wrongful death beneficiaries. Florida law protects the beneficiaries in this circumstance because the attorney representing the Estate of the decedent has a duty to the Estate and not to the personal representative. This means the attorney bringing the lawsuit has a legal duty to ensure all beneficiaries are identified and a claim is brought on their behalf. The lawyer also has a duty to ensure each beneficiaries claim is maximized. This means that each wrongful death beneficiary will get an opportunity to demonstrate their losses. It also means the attorney will provide guidance to each beneficiary to ensure this happens.
An example of this happening is the situation where the decedent had children with multiple partners. All of the children are legally beneficiaries entitled to damages. The personal representative of the Estate would not be able to ignore pursuing a claim of any of the children not related to the personal representative. Instead the personal injury attorney representing the Estate would have a legal duty to identify all the child beneficiaries, ensure all their claims are brought, and ensure all their claims are maximized.
How Are Damages Allocated Among Beneficiaries?
Most wrongful death lawsuits are settled without the need of a jury trial. The attorney representing the Estate will negotiate the settlement based on the experience of what a jury is likely to award to each beneficiary. However, the actual settlement is can sometimes be less than what a jury would award because the settlement has to take into account the possibility of losing.
If the case settles prior to trial, the wrongdoer will not allocate what amount goes to each beneficiary. Instead the wrongdoer will pay one lump sum. The personal injury attorney representing the Estate will then subtract attorney fees, costs and any medical liens. What is left over will be split between the beneficiaries. If the beneficiaries cannot agree on how to split their portion, the court will hold a hearing to decide how to apportion the money. In addition, anytime one of the beneficiaries is a minor, the court must approve the settlement and the allocation among the beneficiaries.
If the case is not settled, then a jury trial will be held. The jury will first decide if the person accused of wrongdoing is guilty of negligent, reckless, or intentional conduct that caused the decedent’s death. If the jury decides the conduct was not negligent, reckless, or intentional or the jury decides the conduct did not cause the death, then no damages will be awarded.
On the other hand, if the jury decides the wrongdoers conduct was negligent, reckless, or intentional, and the jury decides the conduct caused the decedents death, then they will decide how much damages to provide for each beneficiary. To do this, the jury will hear testimony from the beneficiaries and from other witnesses regarding how the decedents death effected each beneficiary. Then the jury will identify in writing a specific amount of money in damages to go to each beneficiary. Attorney fees and costs will then be subtracted, and each beneficiary will get the remainder.
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