What is a Personal Representative in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

A wrongful death lawsuit can provide financial compensation when the recklessness, negligence, or willful misconduct of another person results in a fatality. However, New York State only allows “the personal representative of the estate” to file grievances on behalf of surviving family members in civil court. Understanding who this person is and how a personal representative is designated is the first step in presenting a valid claim.

Who is the ‘personal representative of the estate’ in New York?

New York is different than many other states in that surviving spouses and children cannot file a wrongful death claim unless they are also designated as “personal representatives” or “executors” of the estate. Even though next of kin may be entitled to receive benefits from the estate, they cannot simply show up in court and file the lawsuit.

Proceedings must be brought in the Surrogates Court of the county where the decedent resided at the time of death. If the decedent had a Will, there would be a designation listed for the executor. If there is no Will, then Letters of Administration have to be issued by the Surrogates Court. Often, families have a lawyer handling this process to get the lawsuit rolling within the statute of limitations.

Who is eligible to collect from a wrongful death lawsuit?

N.Y. Estate Powers & Trusts Law §4-1.1 lists the priority of survivors who are entitled to a share of the decedent’s estate if there is no legal will in place. The order of significance goes as follows:

  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Surviving parent(s)
  • Brothers and sisters

The law of succession can be complicated, especially if there were children from previous marriages, half-blood relatives, and close connections who may fall outside these typical categories. A New York City wrongful death lawyer can empower you to understand how to bring an action for wrongful death. 

Why are wrongful death lawsuits filed?

New York allows family members to seek compensation for their losses if they can prove:

  • A death in the family occurred
  • The death was at least partly caused by another person’s recklessness, negligence, or misconduct
  • One or more surviving family members suffered a loss as a result
  • There are damages available for the decedent’s estate to recover

A “loss” can be tangible– such as outstanding medical and healthcare bills, lost income from the deceased, or funeral and burial costs. Yet, a loss can also be intangible, like the loss of companionship, the loss of consortium, loss of future inheritance, or loss of parental guidance, nurturing, and care. The goal of civil court is to make families “whole” again after a sudden, catastrophic loss of a loved one. 

Do you need a lawyer as a personal representative of the estate in N.Y.?

While it may be possible for families to open and close an estate when the decedent had a written will, sudden deaths can leave many matters unresolved. Appointing a personal representative of the estate allows your family room to grieve while the estate is settled. It is especially important to work with an attorney as soon as possible. New York’s statute of limitations allows just two years from the date of death to pursue a wrongful death claim.

The personal representative or estate administrator handles several essential duties, such as:

  • Making a list of the decedent’s assets
  • Protecting assets by notifying financial institutions
  • Obtaining professional real estate and heirloom appraisals to determine value
  • Handling an estate checking account
  • Determining if there are valid creditors entitled to a portion of the estate
  • Paying estate debts and expenses, such as funeral costs, court fees, attorney fees, and appraisal costs
  • Keeping detailed records of all money going into and out of the decedent’s estate
  • Filing the decedent’s final federal and state income tax returns and preparing estate income tax returns
  • Paying beneficiaries in the will or in accordance with the law of succession
  • Filing a wrongful death lawsuit, if applicable, and ensuring the recovery is dispersed appropriately.

Douglas and London can assist with your wrongful death claim

New York City personal injury lawyers at Douglas and London are experienced in wrongful death litigation. Families often appoint one of our attorneys to act as a legal representative to handle their loved one’s affairs after a sudden death. As an impartial representative, we can file a wrongful death lawsuit and ensure the decedent’s belongings, property, assets, insurance policies, and any amount awarded in settlement or jury verdict are distributed equitably to surviving heirs. Contact us today for a free consultation.