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Reimbursement to estate should be proportional

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The Indiana Supreme Court ruled today that a proportional allocation of proceeds from a pre-trial settlement would be best way to reimburse an estate for funeral and burial expenses.

The high court accepted In the Matter of the Supervised Administration of the Estate of Lawrence W. Inlow, deceased; Anita Inlow v. Jason L. Inlow, et al., No. 29S02-0902-CV-89, to answer the question: To what extent is a decedent's estate entitled to payment from a pre-trial settlement of a wrongful-death action in which the settlement doesn't allocate specifically between different types of damages.

Lawrence Inlow was killed in 1997 when he was struck in the head by a blade of a company helicopter. At the time of his death, he had no will.

Inlow's widow, Anita, paid $284,000 in funeral and burial costs, and then sought and received reimbursement from the estate. After a settlement was reached in a wrongful-death action in federal court, the estate sought reimbursement of that money in 2004. The Hamilton County trial court ordered in 2007 that Inlow's estate receive full reimbursement of the $284,000.

Anita appealed, believing Indiana Code Section 34-23-1-1 requires the payment of funeral and burial expenses from a wrongful-death award to an estate only when the award specifies what amount should go toward funeral expenses. If the award is able to be used to reimburse the estate, she argued she and her dependent son will receive no portion of those monies.

The defendants in this case, the personal representative of Inlow's estate and his four adult children from a previous marriage, argued the statute requires the damages to be used first to reimburse the estate for the funeral and burial costs incurred whether or not a portion of the damages award was designated for these expenses.

A split Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the trial court order, but the Supreme Court disagreed today. In its decision, Justice Brent Dickson wrote, "To impose upon all pre-trial wrongful death settlements a requirement that the net proceeds must first be allocated to medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses before distribution for other damages could frequently, as here, be inequitable and create an undesired counter-incentive to seek settlement."

The justices also disagreed with Anita's argument that none of the settlement could be paid to the estate for funeral or burial expenses because it didn't specify any of that recovered money was to be used for that purpose.

"It is quite apparent from the language of the Act that, in creating a statutory cause of action for wrongful death, the legislature intended particular attention to the payment of medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses," the justice wrote. "To extend this legislative objective to pre-trial settlements, a proportional allocation appears most equitable."

The court should direct payment from a pre-trial wrongful-death settlement the part of the medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses that corresponds to the ratio of the total of such expenses to the estimated total damages sustained.

The case is remanded to the trial court for a determination of the portion of the funeral and burial expenses that will be reimbursed to the estate from the wrongful-death settlement.

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