Family members of wrongful death victims can successfully sue to recover a variety of damages, including loss of income and consortium. But one that's often overlooked is the loss of inheritance. Here's more information about how the courts handle this request from survivors and what you need to do to get what you're owed.
Calculating Loss of Inheritance
The court defines loss of inheritance as the difference between the value of a person's estate at the time of their premature death and the value it would have been if they had lived until their natural death. For example, imagine the decedent would've had $1 million in retirement savings if they had lived until age 65, but they were killed at age 53 and only had $750,000 saved. The court would order the defendant to pay the $250,000 difference to the victim's heirs.
As you can imagine, calculating the loss of inheritance can be a complex matter. Not only does the court have to determine just how long the defendant would've lived based on a number of factors such as health and lifestyle, but they also have to determine whether the victim would've left any money for heirs and the amount those heirs could reasonably have expected to receive.
As such, not all families will be able to take advantage of this tort. If the victim was indigent or lived paycheck to paycheck with no savings, the court may feel the decedent wouldn't have had any money or assets to leave potential beneficiaries and so will deny the request for damages related to loss of inheritance.
Likewise, family members may not get as much money as they think if the victim had a condition or lifestyle factors that shorted his or lifespan. For instance, smoking shortens a person's lifespan by 10 years. So, instead of calculating the damages until age 79 (which is the average lifespan for a US resident), the court will only appraise the estate's value until the person would've turned 69 if he or she was a smoker.
An attorney can provide more detailed information about all the factors the court considers when determining how much to award for loss of inheritance, so it's best to consult with your personal injury lawyer about this issue.
Proving You Are Owed This Money
Calculating the loss of inheritance is only one part of the equation. You must prove to the court that your family is eligible for this money, and the first thing you'll have to show is the decedent would've had an estate to leave behind. This can be tough if the person was indigent or didn't appear to have any money or assets to leave behind.
One way around this is to show the person had fallen on hard times but was recovering. One example is if the only reason the person didn't have savings or assets was because he or she lost their job and spent the money on expenses while searching for a new job. If the person successfully found employment, you could make a case that the person would've rebuilt their estate based on prior behavior (i.e., the fact that they had savings before) if it hadn't been for the defendant's negligent actions.
There may be other ways to get around this issue. Thus, it's best to consult with an attorney who can provide more solutions.
The other thing you must do is prove you and/or your family members would've been beneficiaries to the estate. This may be easy for spouses and children, since most people include them in their estate planning. However, the more distant your relationship to the decedent, the more evidence you'll need to present that you would have been included in the person's will.
The best piece of evidence is an existing will with your name in it. Otherwise, you may need to present correspondence from the decedent and testimony from others describing your relationship and the likelihood you would've received money or assets from the victim had he or she died normally.
For help with your wrongful death case, contact a wrongful death attorney.