Compensation for Estate

In a wrongful death claim, the claimant for the person that actually died is the estate.  Others may have claims as well such as the family members of the deceased.  This section covers the most frequent questions surrounding the estate in a wrongful death action.

What is an estate and how is it created? 

The estate is actually created by filing a petition with the probate court which oversees the affairs and property of a person after they pass.  The probate court is a specific division of the court system that is dedicated to these types and a limited number of other cases.  Probate courts have very specific rules and requirements and any awards to an estate have to be handled properly to ensure there are no issues for the beneficiaries of the deceased.  Therefore, an attorney that handles wrongful death claims has to be experienced and familiar with probate court as well as the civil court system to ensure that no problems arise with the receipt or disbursement of any funds that an estate receives.

What claims does an estate have?   

What an estate can claim and recover varies greatly depending on the jurisdiction and situation.  In Iowa, estates have the following potential claims: 
  • Lost value of the estate- this is basically the additional net worth that the deceased would have been expected to accumulate during his or her lifetime if he or she had not passed.  There are number of factors that go into this calculation such as the age of the person, health, education level, current net worth, salary and earning capacity, spending and saving habits, and other factors that would affect the net worth that a person can be expected to reach.  Oftentimes an expert is needed to perform and advanced economic analysis to determine a proper range for this claims 
  • Lost Earnings- the value of lost wages or lost income from business from the date of injury until death.  This claim can typically only be made if a person survives the accident but then later dies from the injuries and missed work during that time. 
  • Medical Expenses- any costs of medical treatment after the injury until death including hospital expenses, ambulance expenses, surgeries, prescriptions, imaging and testing such as x rays, MRI’s C/T scans EKG, etc. 
  • Pain and suffering- this is the pain and suffering the person experienced after the accident and prior to their death.  This claim is only available typically if the person survived the accident for some period of time.  This type of damage is not able to be calculated by any mathematical formula but varies greatly depending on the injures and the situation. 
  • Loss of Full Mind and Body- this is the loss of function of the mind and the body after the accident but prior to death.  Once again, this is only available if a person survives the accident for some period of time. This type of damage is also not able to be calculated by any mathematical formula but varies greatly depending on the effects that injuries have on the person and the situation. 
  • Burial expenses-  the interest on the money paid for the burial of the deceased. This amount cannot exceed the cost of the burial. 

Who is in charge of the estate?

In a wrongful death claim an experienced attorney will take care of legal matters of the estate. However the estate also has a personal representative that helps with the administration ad making decisions for the estate.  This person is determined by a will or appointed by the court if there is no will. 

What happens to money the estate receives?

This is a very complex question that cannot be succinctly answered in a few paragraphs.  Typically, a person’s will dictates who gets what from a person’s estate. A person that receives money or property from an estate is called a beneficiary. If there is no will, Iowa’s probate law governs who the beneficiaries are.  Typically the proceeds in an estate would go to the wife first if the person was married. If not, then the proceeds are typically divided among his or her children.  If the person had no children, the estate would go to his or her parents or, if they are deceased, to other family members.  Once again, proper administration of an estate is very important and therefore the family of the victim in a wrongful death accident needs an experienced attorney to ensure everything is done in a proper manner 

How are estates compensated and what other factors are important to obtaining resolution?

Estate’s are compensated either though settlement with the at fault party or by obtaining a verdict from a jury in court.  In most instances, the insurance of the wrongdoer is actually the one that defends the lawsuit and pays the claim.  In many instances, the person who caused an accident will pay very little or nothing at all.  Negotiations in these matters are complicated as each claim needs to be accounted for, each claimant needs to be accounted for, and the proceeds of a settlement properly disbursed and accounted for.  Also, the probate court typically has to approve any settlement. Therefore if an attorney is not experienced in these cases, a case could technically settle but the settlement not be approved because it was not done properly.  

Furthermore, since wrongful death claims can result in substantial verdicts, insurance companies often hire very experienced and talented defense attorneys in an effort to avoid having to pay or at least avoid paying what the claim is really worth.   Therefore, it is very important that an attorney that handles a wrongful death claim is prepared financially and experienced to battle the big boys and the big firms.    These case are very expensive to litigate. If a firm is not financially sound or it is just one lawyer who handles a claim, sometimes the lawyer simply can’t afford to litigate the claim in the way it should be litigated, such as retaining important experts.  The attorney must be dedicated to your claim both personally and financially because it will get expensive and the law firm should be advancing the costs inmost instances.  Lastly, an attorney that handles a wrongful death case not only needs to have gone up against the big boys, but beaten them.  One of the most valuable assets to a claim is an attorney that the insurance company know 1)will go to trial and 2) will win.  We the Defendant’s insurance companies know that, your claim is simply worth much more.  GRL law has battled and beaten the big boys.       

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