What are Primary and Secondary Beneficiaries in Washington Wrongful Death Suits?

What are Primary and Secondary Beneficiaries in Washington Wrongful Death Suits?


Losing a loved one is one of the most stressful experiences anyone can go through. Making matters worse, loved ones not only need to promptly navigate funeral planning, reaching out to family members, and taking care of other final arrangements, some families also have legal matters to attend to. 

If your loved one died as a result of the negligence of another individual or organization, you may be entitled to financial compensation for your loss. There is significant complexity in determining if a strong case can be made, and how to collect damages in wrongful death cases. Working with a skilled personal injury attorney can make it easier to ensure your legal needs are covered while you manage the practicalities and emotional aspects of sudden death. 

What is a wrongful death lawsuit?

If your friend or family member dies as a result of the negligence of an individual, business, or organization, the party that contributed to the series of events leading up to the death may be legally responsible. This means surviving family members may be eligible to receive damages for their loss. 

While nothing can bring back a lost loved one, financial recourse can help your family pay for final expenses, recover a portion of lost wages, and generally ease the financial burdens brought on by the loss. It may be impossible to place an accurate value on a human life, but personal injury attorneys work hard to ensure their clients are compensated in a meaningful manner. 

A wrongful death lawsuit is a legal action aimed at holding responsible parties accountable for loss of life. Crafting a solid wrongful death action requires comprehensive knowledge of Washington law as well as the rules and procedures of court proceedings.

For families, not all wrongful death cases are crystal clear, and consulting an attorney may be the only way to know if you are entitled to damages related to your loss. Even if you learn that a wrongful death suit is not the appropriate legal avenue, you’ll be able to rest assured that you took the steps needed to determine your rights under the law. 

What is a primary beneficiary in a wrongful death lawsuit?

A beneficiary is the person who receives compensation for a wrongful death. This compensation is referred to as damages, which is simply a legal term for a sum of money. 

Beneficiaries are categorized as primary or secondary. It’s important to note that the laws in Washington changed in 2019, expanding who is considered a beneficiary. 

The individual who died is referred to as the decedent. The primary beneficiaries of the decedent might include the decedent’s spouse, any registered domestic partner, and any children. These beneficiaries did not change as a result of the new legislation, but the list of secondary beneficiaries expanded considerably. 

What is a secondary beneficiary in a wrongful death lawsuit?

Secondary beneficiaries are the people who stand to receive compensation for a wrongful death. They only become eligible if there are no primary benefits. For example, if an unmarried woman with no domestic partner and no children dies as a result of a car accident where the other driver was at fault, secondary beneficiaries could sue for damages. 

Washington state law lists parents and siblings as secondary beneficiaries. Prior to the changes in 2019, parents and siblings were still considered secondary beneficiaries, but there were strict guidelines in place for when and how they could recover damages. 

Parents and siblings needed to depend on the decedent for financial support at the time of death. They also needed to live within the United States at the time of death. If the decedent was a minor child, parents needed to show that they provided regular financial support for the child. Also, both parents shared a claim for damages, and anything awarded or agreed upon in a settlement had to be divided between unmarried parents. 

The 2019 legislative changes remove many of these barriers. Parents and siblings no longer need to prove that they depended on financial support from their lost loved one. Nor do they need to prove residency at the time of death. 

In the case of the death of a child, each parent now has his or her own beneficiary status, meaning they can pursue damages on their own. They need only show that they were significantly involved with their child, including financial, emotional, and psychological involvement. 

What are the first steps in pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit?

The most important step is to select a wrongful death attorney to work on your behalf. Preparing a wrongful death case requires in-depth knowledge of the law and the ways local courts handle these matters. Take the time to find an attorney who listens to your concerns in a compassionate, unrushed manner. 

Next, gather any information you have regarding the series of events that led up to the loss of life. The details are different for every family, but commonly include medical records, police reports, incident reports, and statements from witnesses. The more documentation you are able to gather, the stronger your case can be. 

It’s also important to gather information about the financial losses you’ve suffered. This is also a highly individualized matter, as no two families are exactly the same. If the decedent was the breadwinner of the family, wages and projected future earnings will come into play. If the decedent was a stay-at-home parent, there is also significant value to the work done within the home and family.   

Unfortunately, all of these issues need to be addressed promptly after a loss. This is terrible timing, as many family members need time to move through the stages of grief and handle the new realities of the family structure. That said, many loved ones find that taking care of these legal needs gives them a sense of purpose, and hope that even in the shadow of loss, the financial ramifications of the circumstances may not be as bad as they initially seem. 

You’re not alone

If you’ve recently lost a loved one and are interested in learning more about your rights under the law, reach out to a skilled wrongful death attorney. Legal professionals who specialize in this area of practice understand how to collect damages in wrongful death cases and can help you and your family understand where you stand and what you might be able to recover in terms of damages.

Knowing what to expect can help create a degree of stability at what can be an incredibly disruptive and emotionally trying time. 

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