Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim in California?

March 27, 2024 Wrongful Death

Although any sudden unexpected death in the family feels wrong to the surviving loved ones, California recognizes a wrongful death legally as one caused by another party’s careless, reckless, or wrongful actions. Wrongful death claims in California typically stem from car accidents, defective products, negligent property owners, medical malpractice, or acts of violence. When an individual, business, manufacturer, or other at-fault party fails to take reasonable measures to avoid causing another person’s injury and death, they are liable for the damages to close family members. Damages include lost income and benefits, funeral costs, and compensation for grief and anguish. However, California’s wrongful death laws also limit those who may file a wrongful death claim to specific close family members. This prevents distant relatives who don’t suffer financial impacts from the death from profiting from it.


Who are Considered Close Family Members in California Wrongful Death Cases?

California restricts wrongful death claims only to immediate family members who feel the financial impacts of the death as well as the grief. California’s rules put surviving family members in a hierarchy of priority in who may file a wrongful death claim. Those eligible are listed below in the following order of priority:

  • A Surviving Spouse: The spouse or domestic partner of the deceased individual (decedent) always has the highest priority of eligibility to file a wrongful death claim. The vast majority of wrongful death claims in California are filed by surviving spouses. The law recognizes that the spouse suffers the greatest economic damages from the death as well as emotional anguish, especially if they have children and the decedent was a family provider and/or cared for the children and home.
  • A Surviving Child or Children: If the decedent leaves no surviving spouse or the spouse waives the right to file a wrongful death claim, the decedent’s surviving children may file a claim for compensation against the at-fault party. This includes biological and adopted children. If the children are minors, the court appoints a representative or guardian to file the claim on their behalf.
  • Dependent Minors: If the decedent had no surviving biological or adopted children but had dependent minors who resided in the decedent’s home for at least six months before the death, the dependent minor or minors may file a claim through a court-appointed representative.
  • Parents of the Decedent: If the decedent leaves no spouse or children, or they waive their right to file a claim, the parents of the deceased family member may file a wrongful death claim in California. This means parents of a minor child may file a claim, or the parents of an adult child with no other filing family member may claim compensation for their loss.
  • Heirs Named in the Decedent’s Estate Plan or According to California’s Intestacy Laws: If none of the higher-priority family members survive the decedent or wish to file claims, an heir to the decedent’s estate, either named in a will or through the laws of inheritance, may file a claim. This typically is a sibling or the child of a sibling.
  • The Decedent’s Next of Kin: Finally, the court will consider the decedent’s next of kin for a wrongful death claim in California, particularly any who were financially dependent on the deceased family member.

What If Multiple Family Members Seek to File a Wrongful Death Claim in California?

If several family members or next of kin wish to file a claim for wrongful death in California courts, the court carefully considers the above hierarchy. If multiple “next-of-kin” relatives seek compensation, the court may appoint one as a representative to file on behalf of all and then they must divide the compensation.

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