If your spouse dies due to someone else's negligence or wrongful actions, you typically can file a wrongful death suit against the liable party. However, if it's discovered that your marriage to your spouse is actually invalid, you will be barred from pursuing damages for your expenses and losses. While it may be possible to get around this, your case may still be negatively impacted. Here's what you need to know.
Prove You're the Putative Spouse
As noted previously, you may be unable to sue for damages in a wrongful death case if your marriage to your spouse is found to be invalid. However, one exception to this rule is if you can prove you are the putative spouse. That is, you and your spouse married in good faith that your union was valid and legal.
For instance, you married your spouse three years after he or she divorced a previous partner. However, upon his or her death, you find out the divorce was never legalized due to a court error. As long as you had no prior knowledge of this mistake, the court will let you continue your wrongful death lawsuit as if you were the legal spouse.
Be aware, though, that not every state recognizes putative spouses. You will need to consult with an attorney or research the laws in your state to determine if this workaround is available in your area.
You May Have to Share Damages
Although you may be allowed to sue for damages, you may have to share your court award and or insurance benefits with the legal spouse and/or any other putative spouses that may be involved. If the other legally recognized spouses file similar wrongful death lawsuits with the courts or claims with the appropriate insurance company (e.g. workers' compensation), any proceeds may be divvied up between all those involved.
It's possible to fight against this by proving those the other person wasn't financially dependent on your spouse or wouldn't otherwise have had a claim if it weren't for the error that continued to make the person's marriage to your spouse legal. For instance, if the ex-spouse didn't receive any alimony or child support from your spouse and was otherwise financially independent, you may be able to dispute his or her involvement in the wrongful death claim because the person didn't actually suffer any losses due to your spouse's demise.
This issue can be challenging to navigate, so it's best to consult with a wrongful death accident attorney for advice on the best way to handle this type of complication.