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What Are a “Deadbeat Dad’s” Rights Under Tennessee’s Wrongful Death Law?

In Tennessee, a wrongful death lawsuit is designed to compensate certain family members for the loss of a loved one due to the “wrongful act, omission, or killing by another.” For example, if a person is killed in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, the deceased victim’s spouse may file a wrongful death lawsuit. If the victim was not married, his or her children would have priority, followed by the personal representative of the victim’s estate.

Father Entitled to Wrongful Death Proceeds Despite Owing Child Support

While a spouse always has priority under Tennessee law to file a wrongful death action, what happens if the couple was living apart at the time of death? The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently dealt with this question in the context of a separated couple with a minor child. The court specifically addressed whether the spouse was disqualified from sharing in the proceeds of a wrongful death settlement due to unpaid child support obligations.

This case originated with a 2010 two-car accident. The victim was a married woman with an 18-month-old son. At the time of her death, the victim and her husband were living apart but still married.

The husband subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the driver of the other car and several related individuals. While that lawsuit was pending, a Tennessee Juvenile Court separately awarded custody of the victim’s son to her mother, who was also the administrator of the estate. The victim’s brother subsequently adopted the child, and the court terminated the father’s parental rights.

After obtaining custody, the grandmother and uncle intervened in the wrongful death lawsuit. They argued the husband should be dismissed from the case since he had “abandoned” his wife more than a year before her death and he had not paid back child support, either to the child of the victim or to “four women other than the Decedent by whom he had fathered children.” Accordingly the uncle, on behalf of the victim’s child, said he should have standing to maintain the wrongful death lawsuit.

The wrongful death claim was eventually settled for $100,000, the limit of the defendant’s insurance policy. The trial court then held the father was “disqualified” from receiving the settlement proceeds due to his unpaid child support obligations. The father appealed.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals said there was no question the father had the right to bring a wrongful death lawsuit as the victim’s surviving spouse. The issue was that Tennessee’s wrongful death law also bars a “parent” from recovering damages “until all child support arrearages” have been paid. The uncle argued this section effectively barred the husband from even being a plaintiff in this case. The Court of Appeals disagreed. The court noted that the law only bars someone from “recovering” damages until all child support obligations are paid; it says nothing about disqualifying a parent from bringing the actual lawsuit. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals said the husband was entitled to one-half of the $100,000 wrongful death lawsuit—less any amounts deducted to pay back child support.

Get Help from a Tennessee Wrongful Death Attorney

Nobody ever wants to be in the position to have to file a wrongful death lawsuit. But if you have lost a loved one due to the wrongful act of another, it is important to speak with an experienced Knoxville car accident lawyer who can advise you of your rights. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, if you need to speak with someone right away.

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