Short answer: a lot of oversight from the local Probate Court. Here's the deal: an Ohio personal injury attorney who brings a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family of a deceased loved one actually represents the estate of the deceased person. The estate consists of the "next of kin," which means the spouse, children, siblings, and even more distant relatives as well. If there is a settlement of a wrongful death claim, it is for the estate, and not for any one person.
What happens next? Usually, the next of kin/beneficiaries will attempt to agree amongst themselves as to how any settlement proceeds will be distributed/divided. But even if all beneficiaries agree, it is not etched in stone.
Enter The Probate Court. Ohio's probate courts have jurisdiction over the estate of a deceased person, and this includes any wrongful death settlement. The Probate Court will review (1) the amount, and the fairness of, the settlement; (2) the appropriateness of any attorneys fees and expenses; and (3) whether the proposed amount of the settlement to each next of kin or beneficiary is fair and equitable. The Court has the authority to adjust or modify any distribution proposed by the family. A few examples might be helpful here.
WRONGFUL DEATH SETTLEMENTS
For example, if there is a wrongful death settlement of a deceased spouse/parent, who left a surviving spouse and minor children, The Probate Court will closely review how the proposed settlement is to be distributed to ensure that the minor child's monetary needs are taken care of, maintained, and preserved until (and even after) the child reaches 18 years of age. If any proposed individual amount is unfair to the minor, The Court has the power to adjust or modify the proposed distribution on behalf of the minor.
WRONGFUL DEATH VERDICTS
Same example, but let's assume that a jury returns a $1 million dollar verdict. In that case, the jury has the option to simply return a global or gross amount on behalf of the estate of the deceased person, or break it down individually between the surviving spouse and any children. Even in cases where the jury arrives at an individual breakdown of the $1 million verdct, The Probate Court still retains jurisdiction to approve or modify the final amounts to each beneficiary.
Why all this oversight? Ensuring a sense of fairness to all beneficiaries, especially in the case of minor children, adds an extra layer of protection to the process. And our fees and expenses should be subject to scrutiny as well, for the protection of the client.
Overall, Ohio wrongful death verdicts and settlements are highly regulated. And that's the way it should be.