When coping with the unexpected loss of a family member due to a tragic accident, there comes a time when most people begin to wonder about their legal rights. If your loved one’s death was the result of someone else’s negligence, can he or she be held accountable, and can you and your family recover just compensation?
In New York, the process of recovering just compensation for families who lose a loved one in a fatal accident involves filing a claim for wrongful death. If your family member suffered an untimely and unnecessary death because of someone else’s negligence, then you may be entitled to a financial recovery.
However, before taking legal action, it is first necessary to determine who is eligible to file. In New York, the law is clear, but understanding your legal rights requires a bit of explanation.
Understanding New York’s Wrongful Death Statute: Who Can File a Claim?
The relevant provisions of the Consolidated Laws of New York appear in Section 5-4.1 of the Estates, Powers & Trusts portion of the code. Section 5-4.1 states:
“The personal representative, duly appointed in this state or any other jurisdiction, of a decedent who is survived by distributees may maintain an action to recover damages for a wrongful act, neglect or default which caused the decedent’s death against a person who would have been liable to the decedent by reason of such wrongful conduct if death had not ensued. . . .”
3 Key Points about New York’s Wrongful Death Statute
1. A Wrongful Death Claim Must Be Filed by the Victim’s Personal Representative
There is a lot to decipher here, but the first key point is that a wrongful death claim may be filed (and may only be filed) by the victim’s personal representative. A personal representative can either be:
- Designated in the victim’s estate plan (typically in his or her will)
- Appointed by the court if the victim died without an estate plan (or if his or her estate plan is legally unenforceable)
In most cases, spouses will designate each other as their personal representatives, and aging or single parents will often designate one of their adult children as their personal representative. However, these are not the only options, and it is important to review the relevant provisions of the victim’s estate plan (if applicable) to determine who is eligible to file a wrongful death claim.
2. The Personal Representative Files on Behalf of the Victim’s “Distributees”
The next key point is that the personal representative files the wrongful death claim on behalf of the victim’s estate. In other words, the personal representative is not seeking just compensation to be paid to him or her directly, but instead to be distributed to the victim’s beneficiaries (or “distributees”).
3. Eligible Distributees Are Determined by Statute, Not the Victim’s Estate Plan
The final key point is that “distributees” do not necessarily include any or all of the individuals named in the victim’s estate plan (though, as a practical matter, there will often be overlap).
Instead, eligible “distributees” are defined in Section 4-4.1 of the Estates, Powers & Trusts section in the Consolidated Laws of New York. Generally speaking, the family members who are eligible to receive compensation for wrongful death in a claim filed by the victim’s personal representative include:
- Children of the deceased
- Parents of the deceased
- Spouse of the deceased
- Siblings of the deceased (in some cases)
- Grandparents of the deceased (in some cases)
This section of the code is particularly complicated, and the list above is not exhaustive. Hiring an attorney experienced in wrongful death matters is crucial to understand who can file a lawsuit and who may be eligible for damages.
How Do You Identify Your Loved One’s Personal Representative?
Since a wrongful death claim must be filed by the victim’s personal representative, this means that one of the first questions that needs to be answered is: “Who is the personal representative?”
As we mentioned above, the first place to look is the victim’s estate plan – most likely his or her will, more specifically – as it is fairly standard to designate a personal representative as part of the estate planning process. However, if there is no estate plan, if the estate plan is incomplete, if the designated personal representative is unavailable to file a claim, or if someone attempts to challenge the estate plan’s validity, then the process of identifying a personal representative can quickly become more involved—and it may be necessary to go to court.
Our attorneys can assist you with identifying your loved one’s personal representative and all other steps of filing a wrongful death claim. We encourage you to schedule your free initial consultation.
Speak with a New York Wrongful Death Lawyer at O’Connor & Partners, PLLC
If you have lost a loved one in an accident in New York and would like to speak with a lawyer about filing a wrongful death claim, we invite you to get in touch. To schedule a free initial consultation at O’Connor & Partners, PLLC, call us at (845) 303-8777 or complete our online contact form to tell us how we can help. Our law firm serves clients in Kingston, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and nearby areas of New York.