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Starting a Wrongful Death Claim: Opening the Estate and Assigning a Personal Representative

Because the victim has died, any wrongful death action must be brought by the estate of the dead person. An estate is the legal term for the legal entity created to control the assets and debts of a person after his or her death. The first thing we need to find out upon the death of a loved one is whether or not the person had a will. If a will exists, the will often assigns or names a person who will act as the personal representative of the estate, often a family member or friend.

Because wrongful deaths usually happen when we least expect it, many times people pass away without a will. In those instances, the estate is considered “intestate”, meaning that there is no will to control the person’s assets. In such cases, Washington law steps in and substitutes for the will in order to determine who gets what, including the proceeds of the wrongful death action.

The first step in pursuing the wrongful death action is to open an estate by filing a petition with the court for appointment of a personal representative. The petition will be assigned a case number just like any other lawsuit or matter filed in the court. The laws concerning appointment of the personal representative are controlled by RCW 11 and require that the personal representative sign an oath and provide notice to all heirs. If the court is satisfied, the personal representative will be appointed by order of the court and letters testamentary will be issued which allows the personal representative to act on behalf of the estate.

Our firm is prepared to do the legwork to get the estate established. If the estate is complicated or if there are many beneficiaries, we will work with you and your family to help you through this process or work with your probate attorney if need be. In the end, a personal representative will be approved by the court and he or she can then bring the wrongful death claim.

The personal representative of the estate then essentially becomes the plaintiff the wrongful death lawsuit and acts on behalf of the estate. Once you go to court, the case will usually be identified as something akin to “Jane Doe, as Personal Representative of the Estate of John Doe, vs. Construction Company”, for example.

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