Jeffrey P. Gale, P.A. // Apportioning Settlement Proceeds in Florida Wrongful Death Cases

Not infrequently, the amount of money available following a wrongful death scalesaccident to fully satisfy outstanding debts (e.g., medical bills, funeral expenses, credit cards) and compensate survivors for their loss is inadequate. Where the settlement [in the wrongful death claim] is less than the full value of the claim, the personal representative is charged with employing a reasonable and equitable method of apportioning the distribution of settlement proceeds among the survivors and the estate. See In re Estate of Wiggins, 720 So. 2d 523 (Fla. 4th DCA 1999).

Florida estates are administered by personal representatives. Probate Code: Administration of Estates§733.301 Florida Statutes sets forth appointment preferences.

When the death of a person is caused by a wrongful act or negligence, the decedent’s personal representative shall bring an action to recover for the benefit of the decedent’s survivors and estate all damages, as specified in the Florida Wrongful Death Act caused by the injury resulting in death. §768.20 Florida Statutes. (This CHART outlines the survivors and damages specified in §768.21 of the Act.)

In the Wiggins case, six adult children and various creditors (owed a total of $26,000), including Indian River Memorial Hospital, were vying over the $100,000 policy limits the personal representative received from the adverse driver’s insurance policy on behalf of the survivors and the estate. At the court hearing to determine apportionment, an experienced personal injury attorney testified that the full  value of the wrongful death claim was $775,000. The $26,000 owed to the creditors worked out to 3.3% of the full value.

Because the settlement funds available were limited to $100,000, the attorney opined that an equitable distribution as between the estate and survivors would be for the estate to receive 3.3% of the $100,000, or $3,300, just as it would have been entitled to 3.3% of $775,000, had the full value of the wrongful death claim been obtained.

Recognizing her fiduciary duty to both the survivors and the estate, the personal representative recommended that the court award $15,000 to each of the six adult children and the remaining $10,000 to the estate. The court agreed. After the $10,000 awarded to the estate was distributed pursuant to the Florida Probate Code, §733.707, Florida Statutes, Indian River Memorial Hospital ended up with nothing.

The hospital appealed the $10,000 award to the estate. The 4th DCA affirmed the trial court’s decision, writing as follows:

The trial court employed a reasonable and equitable method of distribution and, accordingly, complied with the requirements of both the Florida Wrongful Death Act and the Florida Probate Code. In approving the method employed in this case, however, we do not intend to limit trial courts to the use of this particular formula. So long as the trial court considers and fairly apportions both the claims of the survivors and the claims of the estate and bases its decision on substantial competent evidence, as did the trial judge here, we will find no error.

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