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Losing a loved one can be a devastating experience, made all the more difficult when it brings about unforeseen financial burdens. Wrongful death settlements offer a lifeline during these trying times, aiming to alleviate both emotional anguish and economic strain.
Determining the average wrongful death settlement amount can be challenging due to the unique circumstances of each case. That's where the guidance of a wrongful death attorney becomes indispensable.
Like fingerprints, no two wrongful death cases are identical. In this comprehensive exploration, we'll delve into the complexities of wrongful death settlements, shedding light on the myriad factors that shape average settlement amounts.
What Is a Wrongful Death Settlement?
A wrongful death settlement is a crucial agreement reached between a deceased person's surviving family members and the individual or entity held responsible for the tragic loss. This agreement serves as a means of redress, offering compensation to the bereaved to offset the many losses they've endured.
These losses can range widely, from tangible economic damages like medical expenses and lost income to more intangible but equally significant non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering and the profound emotional toll the death of a loved one can take.
Let's take a closer look at the specific factors that influence the average wrongful death settlement by examining the distinct categories of economic and non-economic damages in more detail.
Economic damages are quantifiable losses that can be documented with receipts or other evidence. These may include:
- Medical Expenses: Costs incurred during the deceased's treatment and care leading up to their passing.
- Lost Wages or Income: The financial loss suffered by the deceased's family due to their premature death, factoring in their earning potential and employment status.
- Funeral and Burial Expenses: Costs associated with the deceased's funeral, burial, and related services.
Because economic damages are concretely quantifiable, they're the easiest category to assess in a wrongful death settlement.
Non-economic damages are more subjective and therefore trickier to quantify, as they represent the intangible losses the surviving family members face. They can include:
- Loss of Companionship and Consortium: The emotional and practical impact of losing a loved one's presence, companionship, and participation in shared activities.
- Pain and Suffering of the Deceased Person: The physical and emotional discomfort experienced by the decedent during their illness or injury.
- Emotional Distress of the Family Members: The mental anguish, grief, and psychological trauma felt by the bereaved.
- Loss of the Deceased Person's Guidance and Support: The emotional impact of losing a loved one's advice, guidance, and support, particularly for younger family members.
To accurately account for the mental and emotional impact of a person's death, a wrongful death lawyer must take the time to get to know the surviving family members and the role the decedent played in their lives.
Factors that Affect Wrongful Death Settlement Amounts
The total award in a wrongful death settlement can vary significantly depending on several factors, including the following:
- Deceased's Age and Earning Potential: Younger individuals with higher earning potential generally command higher settlements.
- Extent of the Family's Economic Losses: The greater the financial burden on the family, the higher the likelihood of a substantial settlement.
- Severity of the Defendant's Negligence: Contributory or comparative negligence, insurance policy limits, and the effectiveness of legal representation may limit the compensation available.
- Strength of Evidence: A strong case with compelling evidence supporting the family's claim can lead to a larger settlement.
- State Laws and Court Precedents: State laws and court rulings also influence the range of potential settlements.
Wrongful death attorneys consider all of these factors, among others, when calculating the potential settlement amount in a wrongful death claim.
What Is the Average Wrongful Death Settlement?
While actual settlement amounts can vary significantly depending on the specifics of each case, recent legal data indicate that the average wrongful death settlement in the U.S. ranges from $500,000 to $1 million.
This wide range reflects the diverse factors that influence settlement amounts, including the suddenness and severity of the loss, the age and earning potential of the deceased person, the strength of the available evidence, and the relevant legal precedents.
How Are Wrongful Death Settlements Paid Out?
A wrongful death settlement can be paid out either in a lump sum or as a structured settlement.
Lump Sum Payments
A lump sum payment provides the entire settlement amount at once.
This option may be appealing to beneficiaries who require immediate access to funds for expenses like medical bills, debt repayment, or living costs. However, managing a large lump sum can be challenging, and sudden access to significant funds may lead to impulsive spending or financial mismanagement.
Structured settlements spread out the settlement payments over time, typically in periodic installments. This approach offers several advantages.
First and foremost, beneficiaries receive a steady stream of income and can therefore count on financial stability into the future. Structured settlements are also managed by third-party trustees, which keeps the funds safe from irresponsible spending or financial difficulties.
Last but not least, structured settlements often receive favorable tax treatment, potentially reducing the tax burden on the recipient.
Considerations for Choosing Between Lump Sum and Structured Settlements
The decision between a lump sum and a structured settlement in wrongful death claims will depend heavily on the beneficiaries' needs and the particular circumstances of the case. Factors to consider include:
- Financial Stability: If the beneficiaries need immediate access to funds, a lump sum may be preferable; for those seeking long-term financial security, a structured settlement is often the better option.
- Financial Literacy: Lump sums require careful financial management, so a structured settlement's built-in protection can be beneficial for those with limited financial knowledge.
- Tax Implications: Seek out a qualified tax advisor for help figuring out which payment method offers the most favorable tax treatment for your situation.
It's up to the beneficiaries in the wrongful death suit and their legal representatives to determine which payment structure is most advantageous.
A Note on Tax Considerations
Wrongful death settlements aren't ordinarily taxed as income. This means that the beneficiaries of a wrongful death settlement won't have to pay taxes on the money they receive.
That said, there may be exceptions in specific cases, so it's advisable to consult a knowledgeable tax specialist.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
The specific individuals authorized to file a wrongful death lawsuit vary depending on state laws. Generally speaking, however, the surviving spouse, children, and parents of the deceased are typically eligible to file a wrongful death suit.
In some states, other close family members, such as siblings, grandparents, or domestic partners, may also have the right to sue.
Who Does the Settlement Money Go To?
In New York, the distribution of wrongful death settlement proceeds is governed by the New York Estates, Powers, and Trusts Law (EPTL). EPTL § 4-1.1 establishes the order of priority for receiving the settlement funds.
Spouse and Children
The surviving spouse is entitled to receive the first portion of the settlement, typically half or more of the total amount.
The remaining funds are divided among the deceased person's children, typically in equal shares. If there are multiple children from different relationships, the court may adjust the distribution to ensure equitable treatment among all children.
Parents and Siblings
If the decedent didn't leave a surviving spouse or children, the settlement proceeds may go to their parents, siblings, or other close relatives. The court may determine the distribution based on the closeness of their relationship to the deceased person.
Guardians and Other Beneficiaries
In some cases, the court may appoint guardians or other individuals to receive the settlement proceeds on behalf of minor children or incapacitated beneficiaries. The court will consider the best interests of the beneficiaries in making this determination.
Can Insurance Cover Wrongful Death?
In some cases, insurance coverage may be available to provide financial relief to the surviving family members. Insurance policies associated with car accidents, defective products, or slip and fall accidents may offer compensation depending on the circumstances surrounding the death.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that insurance companies may not always offer satisfactory settlement amounts.
Can You Increase the Amount of a Wrongful Death Settlement?
The type and severity of the losses incurred by the deceased's family can significantly impact the final settlement amount. A higher degree of fault attributed to the defendant also increases the likelihood of a larger settlement.
Additionally, the extent of the defendant's insurance coverage plays a role in determining the settlement amount. Finally, the strength of the wrongful death case, as supported by compelling evidence, will enhance the bereaved's chances of securing a substantial settlement.
Why Online Tools Can't Accurately Predict Wrongful Death Settlements
While wrongful death settlement calculators offer a quick and easy way to estimate potential compensation, they fail to capture the intricacies of each case.
These tools often rely on generic formulas and fail to consider the unique circumstances of the death, such as the age and earning potential of the deceased, the severity of the at-fault party's negligence, and the emotional impact on the family. As a result, their estimations are often inaccurate and may lead to unrealistic expectations.
Rather than using calculators and other inaccurate resources to tally up potential wrongful death damages, it's important to retain the services of a wrongful death attorney. An experienced legal professional can thoroughly evaluate your case and provide a more accurate assessment of the potential financial compensation.
Should You Settle Your Case or Go to Trial?
Most wrongful death cases are resolved through settlement negotiations and avoid the uncertainty and complexities that often come with a court trial.
A settlement offers a quicker and more predictable resolution, allowing the family to move forward and heal without the prolonged stress of litigation. Additionally, settling often gives the family more control over the outcome of a wrongful death lawsuit, as they can negotiate an agreement that suits their needs and preferences.
However, if a settlement offer is deemed unsatisfactory and the at-fault party's legal team is unwilling to negotiate, plaintiffs have the right to reject the offer and take their claim to trial. Trials can lead to higher damages but can also be time-consuming, costly, and emotionally draining.
Seeking Justice in Wrongful Death Cases?
Count on Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Firm to provide dedicated guidance and advocacy to help you secure the financial support you need.
Seek Reliable Legal Counsel to Secure Fair Compensation for Your Wrongful Death Claim
If you're facing the financial and emotional hardship of the premature death of a loved one, you need strong legal representation.
The experienced team at Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Firm understands the nuances of wrongful death settlements and will fight tirelessly to secure the compensation you deserve. Reach out to us today to arrange a free consultation.