Wrongful Death Cases: Who Has The Claim?

It is not unusual for our firm to be contacted by family members who are bereaved over the death of a close family relative. Oftentimes the individual is killed through the negligence of a third party and the family member simply wants to understand the law that pertains to the claim. Sometimes, however, family members can get in an argument among themselves as to who has the right to pursue the claim for the wrongful death. While Georgia, like many states, has a statutory scheme which sets forth who has the right to bring such a claim, many lay people do not seem to understand that a wrongful death claim belongs to the heirs-at-law, at least here in Georgia.
If a brother should contact counsel seeking representation in a wrongful death case concerning the death of another brother, typically the lawyer will advise the bereaved brother that they have no such claim. In a case where the individual is unmarried and if their parents are alive, the parents have the claim. If the individual who is killed is married, the spouse has the claim. If the individual who is killed has no spouse but has children, the children would have the claim. If there is no relative, then under those limited circumstances, the victim’s estate would have the claim. It is only when there are no other heirs-at-law that someone like a brother, sister, cousin or other more distant relative might potentially be able to represent the estate in such a case. Here again, however, if the relative is appointed as representative of the estate, it will be their duty, if there is a recovery in such a case, to distribute the proceeds received from any settlement or judgment according to the law’s requirements for estates generally. Typically this follows the line of succession and depending upon the particulars involved, may or may not result in ond relative receiving the lion’s share of the proceeds as opposed to other living relatives.
In any case involving a wrongful death, experienced counsel should be consulted so that the identification of the proper claimant can be discussed early on in the case. Those relatives who would seek to retain counsel where they have no legal rights to do so typically will be unsuccessful as most lawyers are well aware of the law in this area. However, sometimes inexperienced lawyers will take claims where family members really have no claim to begin with. Because a wrongful death case is usually a very serious matter, it is all the more important that experienced counsel be retained to represent the interest of the appropriate heirs-at-law.

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