Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in California?

Wrongful Death Lawyers

Wrongful death is a legal term referring to any loss of life caused by another party’s negligence, recklessness, or violation of law.

Most wrongful deaths involve a preventable accident. Common causes include workplace negligence, reckless driving, drunk driving, medical malpractice, defective products, and assault.

This is known as a wrongful death lawsuit, and it is entirely separate from any criminal law proceedings related to the death. The outcome of a wrongful death lawsuit does not depend on whether criminal charges are filed or whether any defendant is convicted.

But who can file a wrongful death lawsuit in California? The rules of eligibility are strict and complex. The statute only allows for certain family members to recover wrongful death benefits — but determining which family members will qualify requires a careful analysis of the family’s makeup and circumstances.

Below, we provide a general explanation of who can file a wrongful death lawsuit in California. However, every family is different, and various exceptions may apply. That’s why it is important to discuss your particular situation with an attorney before reaching any conclusions. A Bakersfield wrongful death attorney at The Law Offices of Mickey Fine can help.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in California?

Let’s start with the general rule. In California, the only relatives allowed to make a claim for wrongful death compensation are the deceased person’s:

  • Surviving spouse
  • Surviving domestic partner
  • Surviving children
  • Surviving grandchildren (if the surviving children have all passed away)

What If the People Listed Above Are No Longer Alive? Or Don’t Exist? Or Don’t Want to File a Wrongful Death Claim?

In the event that there are no surviving spouses, domestic partners, children, or grandchildren — or if those people are alive but choose not to file a wrongful death claim — then anyone who would be entitled to inherit property from the deceased according to the rules of intestate succession may file a wrongful death claim.

“Intestate succession” refers to the order of inheritance when a deceased person dies without a will.

For purposes of determining who can file a wrongful death lawsuit in California, it doesn’t matter whether the deceased had a will or not. Rather, we ask a hypothetical question: “If the deceased had died without a will, who would have inherited his or her property?” Those people then become eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit — but again, this is only true if there are no survivors who want to file suit.

The rules of intestate succession are highly complex. If you aren’t sure whether you qualify under those rules, a Bakersfield wrongful death attorney in our office can help.

What About Parents, Stepchildren, “Putative Spouses,” and Other Financial Dependents?

Parents, stepchildren, putative spouses (i.e. spouses who believed in good faith that they were married under California law but for some reason were technically unmarried), and other financial dependents may be able to sue for wrongful death benefits in one of two scenarios:

  1. The claimant would be entitled to inherit the deceased’s property under the laws of intestate succession and there are no qualifying survivors who want to make a claim (see above).
  2. The claimant can show that they were financially dependent on the deceased person at the time of death. (For these purposes, “financially dependent” generally means that you depended on the deceased for at least 50% of your income.) If you were financially dependent, you may be able to make a wrongful death claim even if there are qualifying survivors.

What If Someone Else Has Already Filed a Wrongful Death Claim?

If you qualify to bring a wrongful death claim as outlined above, but you learn that another qualifying family member has already filed a valid wrongful death claim in California relating to the same death, you may not be able to bring a separate claim of your own.

Rather, your only option may be to join in as an additional plaintiff in the existing wrongful death claim.

While this may still allow you to recover damages, it might be in your best interest to be the first qualifying family member to file. For this reason (among others), it’s a good idea to talk to a Bakersfield wrongful death attorney as soon as possible after the death.

Indeed, as a general matter, it is best not to wait too long to take action on a wrongful death claim in California.

All parties’ claims are subject to a strict statute of limitations. Failure to file a wrongful death claim within the statute of limitations means forever losing the right to sue.

At The Law Offices of Mickey Fine, we understand that legal action is often the last thing on anyone’s mind during a time of mourning. At the same time, we do not want to see anyone compromise their legal interests through delay. We encourage you to contact our office to have a general conversation about your rights and options under the law sooner than later. Once we know more about your situation, we can help you get a sense of how much time you have.

Questions About Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit? The Law Offices of Mickey Fine Can Help.

To learn more about your rights and options after a wrongful death in California, contact our office and schedule a free, no-obligation consultation for the near future. It’s your chance to have a confidential, one-on-one conversation with an experienced personal injury attorney.

Time limits do apply to most wrongful death claims in California, so please don’t delay. Simply call 661-333-3333 in Bakersfield or contact us online as soon as possible.

We will never charge a fee for our services unless we get you money first. The initial consultation is absolutely free.

Wrongful Death
by Mickey Fine Law
Last updated on - Originally published on