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Your Rights as a Beneficiary

Most people are familiar with the term “beneficiary” through insurance policies. In fact, your loved one may have had life insurance that named you as a beneficiary, or in other words the person who can legally collect payment from the policy. Anyone can be named a beneficiary in an insurance policy. You can buy a policy and name your spouse, your children, your parents, your best friend or your next-door neighbor — it’s really up to you. The term beneficiary works a little differently when it comes to a wrongful death lawsuit.

What is a Beneficiary?

Under Illinois law, a beneficiary is a person on whose behalf a wrongful death lawsuit can be brought. The state’s Wrongful Death Act at 740 ILCS 180 specifically says that beneficiaries in a wrongful death action are the surviving spouse and next of kin of the person who died. Next of kin usually means the person’s children. If there are no children, that definition may be expanded to include surviving parents. If there is no spouse, and no children or parents, then the next closest group of relatives may be considered next of kin.

Only one person can actually be the plaintiff in the suit. That person acts as the representative for all of the beneficiaries.

What Does It Mean To Be A Beneficiary?

As a beneficiary in a wrongful death case, you have the right to have a lawsuit brought on your behalf to recover damages related to the loss of your loved one. You may be able to obtain payment for the loss of your family member’s economic contributions to your family, for loss of your relationship with your spouse or family member, for household services your loved one performed, and possibly for your grief and suffering caused by the loss.

If a lawsuit is filed and a jury awards damages, 740 ILCS 180/2 says that the money is split between all of the beneficiaries based on your degree of dependency upon the person who died.

Same-Sex Partners as Beneficiaries

On June 1, 2014, Illinois became the 16th state in the U.S. to legally permit same-sex couples to wed under 750 ILCS 80, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act. This new law opens up a new set of legal rights and questions for those couples. In the event of a wrongful death, a same-sex surviving spouse likely would be treated the same as an opposite-sex spouse and become a beneficiary since the new law says they are to receive equal access to the benefits, protections, rights and responsibilities of marriage. However, this should come with the caveat that this is such a new area of law that it’s untested, and it could take some time to see how everything shakes out.

Another potential gray area comes in the form of the thousands of couples who were joined in Illinois civil unions over the past few years, including an estimated 4,000 in the Chicago area. Those civil unions remain in effect, and the people who entered into them have up to a year to convert those unions to a marriage. Their marriage date would be their original civil union date. But what if something happens in the meantime? Would the rights and benefits of marriage — including the right to be a wrongful death beneficiary — apply? That’s a question that may have to be settled by the courts.

If you’re the surviving partner in a same-sex union, you shouldn’t be deterred from seeking legal counsel about your rights. The changing legal landscape with regards to same-sex partnerships may grant you rights that you haven’t had before. No particular outcome can ever be guaranteed, but it may be worth talking to an experienced wrongful death attorney about your situation and whether you might be able to recover compensation for the death of your partner through someone else’s negligence or wrongdoing.