Wrongful death cases are ones where the death of an individual is deemed to be the fault of another party. It is often the decedent’s estate that will file a wrongful death lawsuit, however, that does not mean that the estate will receive the monetary damages for those cases. Here’s a closer look at beneficiaries in wrongful death cases in Massachusetts.
Why Estates File Wrongful Death Cases
When someone dies, most of their assets and debts become part of their estate. Assets are typically used to settle the debts and anything remaining then gets distributed to designated beneficiaries. Beneficiaries might be those outlined in a will or established in a trust. An estate trustee or executor is responsible for settling these matters. That executor also has the power to do things such as file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the estate. On the surface, it makes sense for an estate to file suit since the assets of the estate might be used to cover legal fees and the estate would stand to benefit from any money awarded in the suit. However, Massachusetts law says otherwise.
Understanding Massachusetts Law
In the state of Massachusetts, any money awarded in wrongful death cases does not belong to the estate, even if the estate initiated the lawsuit. Instead, the money must go directly to statutory beneficiaries,… essentially the legal heirs. How might this be different from the beneficiaries of an estate?
When someone dies, their will and/or trust can name anyone as a beneficiary. It does not need to be a family member. In the absence of a will or trust, the courts determine statutory beneficiaries, such as the surviving spouse, children, or parents of the deceased. According to Massachusetts law, the beneficiaries in wrongful death cases are the legal heirs and not the estate itself (which might have different beneficiaries).
Recent Massachusetts Case Law
This law was highlighted in a recent case in Massachusetts, Bogomolsky v. Furlong. This case involved a motor vehicle crash in Bourne, MA where an unidentified vehicle #1 swerved into a lane, causing a 2nd car to crash into a 3rd, killing drivers of both the 2nd and 3rd cars. The police determined that the 2nd car was primarily at fault and the 1st car was partially at fault. Here’s where things get a little more complicated.
The 2nd car had “uninsured motorist” protection. This means that if an accident is caused by another driver (i.e. unidentified driver #1) who is not insured or cannot be found, then the policy will still cover car #2. Thus, driver #2’s estate received $100,000 in uninsured motorist protection from their insurance company. Driver #3’s estate sued driver #2’s estate for that $100,000.
Driver #3’s estate won the lawsuit. However, because of the Massachusetts law that we mentioned above, the money did not go to the estate. Instead, it went directly to driver #3’s legal heir, which happened to be his daughter.
This is not the only example of an asset not becoming part of a decedent’s estate. Another common one is life insurance. Life insurance policies can list specific beneficiaries. Proceeds are given directly to the beneficiaries, separate from the estate.
Importance of Understanding Beneficiaries in Wrongful Death Cases
In the Bogomolsky v. Furlong case, had the executor of the estate known that any monetary damages would not go to the estate, then he/she might not have initiated the lawsuit to begin with. Any expenses paid by the estate for the lawsuit is not reimbursed to the estate either. Thus, it is important for beneficiaries and executors of estates in Massachusetts to understand how beneficiaries in wrongful death cases are determined.
If you have a wrongful death case that you would like to pursue, contact our team to schedule a consultation.