Question: In light of the recent murder that occurred in Dalhart and the suicide that followed, what recourse does the family of the victim have, especially since there will be no need for a criminal proceeding? Does the family of the victim have any rights against the suicide victim, his family or his estate?
Answer: Yes. Texas law provides that a surviving spouse or heirs of a victim of a homicide is entitled to damages (money) from the murderer. Further, what a person owns at the time of their death remains within their estate upon death until distribution through court proceedings. That means that the property a murderer who then commits suicide is subject to whatever that person would have been subject to had they still been alive.
The Texas Constitution, Article 16 General Provisions, Section 26 Homicide; Liability in Damages states, “Every person, corporation, or company, that may commit a homicide, through willful act, or omission, or gross neglect, shall be responsible, in exemplary damages, to the surviving husband, widow, heirs of his or her body, or such of them as there may be, without regard to any criminal proceeding that may or may not be had in relation to the homicide.”
Exemplary damages are also often referred to as “punitive” damages, or damages that are meant to punish the wrongdoer. Exemplary damages may be awarded in a lawsuit when the willful acts of the wrongdoer were malicious, violent, oppressive, fraudulent, wanton or grossly reckless. They may also be quite high because they are not limited to the actual amount of harm or loss that a person has suffered. A lost life may be measured monetarily by what their earning capacity was at the time of their death and their life expectancy. Often that limits the amount of actual damages suffered, but exemplary damages are truly about punishing the wrongdoer and taking a big bite out of their pocketbook.
In the case where the person who committed a murder has then committed suicide, their estate may be sued for exemplary damages by the surviving spouse or heirs of the murder victim. The spouse or heirs that want a judge to determine if exemplary damages are warranted must file a contest to any probate or heirship proceedings filed by the beneficiaries or heirs of the murderer in order to ensure that the estate is not distributed to beneficiaries or heirs before the spouse or heirs of the victim have their request heard.
When a person dies leaving a valid written Last Will and Testament the proper application to file before the court is an Application for Probate and Issuance of Letters Testamentary. A Will states who should receive the property of a decedent; however, when the decedent leaves debts or may be responsible for damages resulting from potentially criminal acts, the Court will order that the debts or damages get paid first, before any distribution of the remainder of the estate.
When a person dies without a Will, called intestate, the proper application to file is an Application for Determination of Heirship and the same principals apply regarding the decedent’s debts and unpaid damages. Other types of claims must be paid by an estate before distribution such as taxes, child support, alimony and attorney’s fees. The Texas Probate Code divides the types of claims against an estate into eight different categories and the order of payment first is from one to eight, then distribution of the remainder of the estate follows.
A Judge cannot award money to be paid to a claimant if the he or she has no knowledge of the claim, that’s why it is important for a surviving spouse or heir to file an appropriate pleading (request) with the court in order to be heard.
The information in this article is for informational purposes only and not as a substitute for sound legal advice. Please direct questions to Ask the Lawyer to firstname.lastname@example.org or via the Facebook page for The Dalhart Texan. Become a fan of The Dalhart Texan Facebook page for news, updates and breaking news information.