Filing a wrongful death lawsuit is a somber experience. Even when plaintiffs are successful in court, the win can feel bittersweet because they know that all the financial compensation in the world will not be able to bring their loved one back. Wrongful death lawsuits are often for the benefit of multiple family members, so when plaintiffs are awarded damages, they need to be divided amongst those who benefit from the lawsuit.

Wrongful death settlements are divided according to New Jersey’s intestacy rules. These rules govern what happens when someone dies without a will. Rest assured, though, that such damages do not invalidate any wills or other documents that the deceased prepared before they died.

If you need legal assistance, get a free case review from Legal Care New Jersey’s New Jersey wrongful death lawyers when you call our offices at (732) 838-9769.

How Are Wrongful Death Settlements Split Up in New Jersey

Courts generally award damages in civil claims as a lump sum. In typical injury cases, there is only one plaintiff – the victim – who benefits from the lawsuit, so this works fine. However, in wrongful death cases, the victim is deceased. The people who benefit from these lawsuits are the victim’s family. For that reason, damages need to be divided between those people so that they all get what they are entitled to, personally.

The State of New Jersey distributes damages from wrongful death claims the same way that it handles intestacy. “Intestacy” is the process by which the worldly possessions of someone who dies without a will are distributed. Damages in a wrongful death lawsuit are not part of the deceased’s will, so they are distributed in s similar fashion to how assets would be distributed according to intestacy in New Jersey

Dividing Wrongful Death Damages in New Jersey

Damages in wrongful death lawsuits are distributed along the same lines that the assets of someone who dies without a will are distributed. The intestacy rules that get used are detailed in N.J.S.A. § 3B:5-3. Intestacy can be complicated, even for lawyers, so our Jersey City wrongful death attorneys have detailed how it works in this section below. Essentially, distribution starts with the spouse of the deceased and trickles downward. If someone in the tree is already deceased or otherwise ineligible, they have – or are treated as if they have – “predeceased” the decedent and do not get anything. Things can get very complicated depending on who in the deceased’s family tree is still living or not, so it can be very hard to discern what will happen in your particular situation.

Spouse Gets Damages First

Under N.J.S.A § 3B:5-3(a), the spouse of the deceased gets all of the damages from a wrongful death claim.  While intestacy rules do this a bit differently for actual intestacy, when it comes to wrongful death suits, the spouse and children each get an equal share. If there is a surviving parent but no children, their shares might be different.

Heirs By Representation

If the decedent did not have a spouse or their spouse predeceased them, then wrongful death damages are distributed pursuant to N.J.S.A. § 3B:5-4. The damages go to the deceased’s heirs – their children and grandchildren – “by representation.” This means that assets are divided equally between branches of the heir’s family tree. It is important to remember that this does not mean that every surviving person gets an equal share. Instead, shares “waterfall” through generations. For example, if the decedent had four children, they would each get 25% of the payout. However, if the decedent had two children, but one of those children predeceased the decedent and has two offspring of their own, then the surviving child of the decedent would get 50% while the grandchildren would each get 25% – half of their parent’s share that they would have received had they been alive.

No Surviving Spouse or Descendants

If the deceased does not have any surviving descendants, then the damages go to the deceased’s surviving parents under N.J.S.A. § 3B:5-4(b). However, there are various rules that cut off parents from receiving these damages if they were abusive, abandoned the victim, or are otherwise excluded.

If there are no parents surviving, compensation can go to the deceased’s grandparents or to the deceased’s siblings, depending on the circumstances.

Do Wrongful Death Settlements Impact Wills in New Jersey?

Because settlements in wrongful death claims are distributed according to the same rules New Jersey uses for intestacy, some people may be concerned that a wrongful death lawsuit will override their loved one’s wishes in a will. You can rest easy because the financial compensation you get out of a wrongful death claim is not at all related to what the deceased wants to happen in their will.

On the other hand, the deceased’s estate can also recover damages in a survival action – a similar lawsuit usually filed in parallel with a wrongful death lawsuit. There, the deceased’s estate recovers damages and puts them into the estate. These damages will then be divided according to the terms of the will along with other assets and money in the estate. This is because the damages in a survival action go directly to the deceased’s estate, so they will be meted out in accordance with their last will and testament or, if they died without a will, then under intestacy rules.

Get Help from a New Jersey Wrongful Death Attorney Today

Our Clifton, NJ wrongful death lawyers are ready to help you out for free when you call Legal Care New Jersey at (732) 838-9769.