What Do I Need to Know About Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

If a loved one you know has passed away and you believe there was negligence involved in the events surrounding the death, you may have some questions. What is a wrongful death claim, and who can file it? How quickly must a suit be filed? What damages can be collected, and how are they distributed?

Wrongful Death

A wrongful death lawsuit is a legal action in civil court that seeks a civil remedy against the company or person who played a role in the death of the decedent. The remedy is paid in the form of monetary damages.

In most states, “wrongful death” is considered to have occurred when negligence of intentional action of another party results in the death of someone. So, if the person had lived and would be able to file a personal injury lawsuit, they would ordinarily have grounds for a wrongful death case.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

The person who has died is called the “decedent.” Obviously, the decedent cannot bring the lawsuit themselves, and is in fact, legally not allowed to file the lawsuit. A different person must bring the lawsuit. This person varies by state, however:


  • Every state allows immediate family members to file a claim.
  • A surviving spouse can typically file the lawsuit.
  • Adult children can file the lawsuit in some states.
  • A parent normally files the lawsuit when the decedent is a minor. collection laws in California¬†
  • A single member of a civil union or domestic partnership can file a lawsuit on behalf of their partner in some states.
  • More distant family members can bring a lawsuit if the decedent was a single adult male in many states.
  • If the decedent had a will, the executor of the will may have the sole right to file a claim on behalf of the decedent.


Only one wrongful death lawsuit can be filed on behalf of the decedent. If multiple lawsuits are filed due to family bickering, the court will most likely consolidate them into one lawsuit.

When Must a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Be Filed?

Every state has its own set of laws regarding the statute of limitations on a wrongful death lawsuit. All states allow at least one year. The one exception is if you are claiming the government, or an employee of the government, happened to play a role in the death of the decedent. In this case, you may need to file documentation such as a “notice of claim” within 90 days of the death.

What Damages Can Be Collected?

In most states, damages are awarded exclusively for the benefit of the decedent’s surviving spouse, children, or other dependents. In cases where there are no surviving spouse, children, or dependents, the damages may be paid directly to the estate.

Damages available in a wrongful death case — and in what amounts — will vary depending on the facts of the particular case, and the state it is filed in. Some common types of damages paid out include:

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