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Estate must be reimbursed for funeral expenses

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The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a trial court's approval of money received in a wrongful death suit of an Indianapolis attorney to be used to reimburse his estate for funeral and burial expenses. His widow, who paid for those expenses and received reimbursement from the estate, argued the wrongful death award wasn't itemized to include a portion for funeral expenses so the estate shouldn't be reimbursed.

In In the Matter of the Supervised Administration of the Estate of Lawrence W. Inlow, deceased; Anita Inlow and Anita Inlow as guardian of Jesse Inlow v. Jason L. Inlow, et al., No. 29A02-0712-CV-1039, Anita Inlow, the widow of Lawrence W. Inlow 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 contends she and her dependent son will receive no portion of those monies.

The appellate court examined I.C. Section 34-23-1-1, which in part states, "That part of the damages which is recovered for reasonable medical, hospital, funeral and burial expense shall inure to the exclusive benefit of the decedent's estate for the payment thereof."

The defendants in this case, the personal representative of Inlow's estate and his four adult children from a previous marriage, argue 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.

Authoring Judge Nancy Vaidik and Judge Paul Mathias agreed with the trial court after examining the wrongful death statute and Indiana Code 34-51-2, which deals with compensatory damages for injuries or death to someone or harm to property. There is no statutory requirement for itemization of damages, and it would be illogical to impose a requirement for wrongful death suits when no requirement exists for other personal injury awards, wrote Judge Vaidik.

The majority also found it was apparent the parties during the settlement contemplated the costs of Lawrence's funeral and burial because the wrongful death cause specifically referred to those expenses in the complaint.

Judge Melissa May dissented, writing the statute specifically addressing wrongful death awards should control, and that statute requires the amount of damages to be categorized as medical, hospital, or funeral and burial expenses, or all other damages. The damages categorized as medical, hospital, funeral and burial go to the estate and all other damages go to the widow and dependent children, she wrote.

"The statute is explicit that funeral and burial expenses are, in this context, an estate obligation. The majority result burdens Anita with an expense (in the form of her loss of wrongful death benefits) the estate should incur," she wrote. "I would accordingly remand for the measurement and categorization of damages Ind. Code § 34-23-1-1 requires and for distribution consistent with that section."

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  1. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.

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