The family members who have a right to share in the wrongful death proceeds are exactly the same family members who would receive assets from the decedent’s estate if the decedent died with no valid will at the time of death. The North Carolina Intestate Succession Act is the law that provides for the distribution of a decedent’s assets in cases where a N.C. citizen dies with no valid will. This statute also identifies exactly who would collect from a wrongful death settlement or trial verdict. Further, even if the decedent had a will, the will does not effect the list of parties who collect in the wrongful death case. Thus, even if the victim was estranged and entirely out of touch with a surviving family member, and even if that family member was intentionally excluded from the decedent’s written will, the excluded family member still has a right to a share of the wrongful death proceeds in North Carolina.
For the complete law of intestate succession, see N.C.G.S. Chapter 29. The following is a summary of how wrongful death case proceeds are paid out to surviving family members:
If the decedent was married at the time of wrongful death:
- Spouse surviving and no children or descendants of children surviving & no parent surviving – All funds to spouse.
- Spouse surviving and no children or descendants of children surviving & one/both parents surviving– First $50,000.00 to spouse and remaining proceeds divided in half between spouse and surviving parent(s).
- Spouse surviving and one child or descendants of one child also surviving– First $30,000.00 to spouse and remaining proceeds divided in half between spouse and surviving child or descendants of non-surviving child.
- Spouse surviving and two or more children or their descendants– First $30,000.00 to spouse, one-third of remaining proceeds to spouse and two-thirds of remaining proceeds to children or descendants.
If the decedent was single at the time of wrongful death:
- If children or decedents are alive – All proceeds to child(ren) or descendants of child(ren).
- Parent(s) surviving but decedent had no children – All proceeds of wrongful death claim paid to parents.
- Brother(s) or sister(s) surviving, no children or surviving parent – All proceeds shared by surviving sibling(s) and their descendants. See N.C.G.S. 29-15(4) & 29-16(6) for complete explanation of shares of descendants.
- No children or their descendants, no parents, no siblings or sibling descendants – One-half to paternal grandparents but, if not surviving, then to paternal Uncles, Aunts or their descendants. Remaining one-half to maternal grandparents but, if not surviving, then to maternal Uncles, Aunts or their descendants.
If any person entitled to distribution of wrongful death proceeds is a minor (under the age of eighteen years), then any settlement of a wrongful death claim must be approved by the Court through an action filed by the minor’s Guardian ad Litem. Wrongful death proceeds for minor children can also be placed into annuities through structured settlements to ensure that the child’s funds earn interest over time, and to allow the family to divide case payments so the child at age 18 is not faced with the sudden responsibility of handling the total case payout at such a young age. Minor settlements are discussed in further detail beginning on page 187, and the structured settlement process is outlined beginning on page 189.