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California Wrongful Death Laws

Last updated 11/20/2019

California's wrongful death laws allow surviving family members to file wrongful death claims in order to receive compensation when someone's actions result in the death of their loved one, whether they are acts of negligence (like a drunk driving accident) or malice (as in murder). Since the standard of proof in a wrongful death claim is less stringent than it is for criminal cases, it's not uncommon for a defendant to be acquitted of murder or manslaughter and still be found liable for wrongful death. Learn more about California wrongful death laws below, including who is eligible to file such a claim and the types of damages that may be claimed.

Wrongful Death Claims: Overview

Wrongful death claims may arise out of a variety of circumstances, including medical malpractice, occupational exposure to dangerous chemicals, and criminal activity. Regardless of the underlying circumstances, the plaintiff must prove the existence of the following elements:

  1. A human being died;
  2. This death was caused either by another's negligence or another's intent to cause harm (not necessarily death);
  3. Surviving family members are suffering monetary injury as a result of the death; and
  4. A personal representative for the decedent's estate has been appointed.

Wrongful death and other civil claims only require a "preponderance of the evidence" in determining liability, which is not as high a standard as that required for a guilty verdict in which the prosecution must establish guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

California Wrongful Death Laws at a Glance


California Code of Civil Procedure § 377.60

Senate Bill No. 41, Chapter 136

Statute of Limitations

2 years (CCP § 335.1

Who May File a Wrongful Death Claim

(a) The decedent's surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.

(b) Whether or not qualified under subdivision (a), if they were dependent on the decedent, the putative spouse, children of the putative spouse, stepchildren, or parents. As used in this subdivision, “putative spouse” means the surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have believed in good faith that the marriage to the decedent was valid.

(c) A minor, whether or not qualified under subdivision (a) or (b), if, at the time of the decedent's death, the minor resided for the previous 180 days in the decedent's household and was dependent on the decedent for one-half or more of the minor's support.

Damages Available in a Wrongful Death Claim
  • Expenses related to medical bills for the care of the deceased right before his or her death
  • Expenses related to funeral, burial, etc.
  • Amount of money the deceased reasonably would have earned had he or she remained alive
  • Loss of financial support (re: surviving family members)
  • Loss of companionship, affection, etc. (re: surviving family members)

(CCP § 377.61)

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

California Wrongful Death Laws: Related Resources

Get a Legal Evaluation of Your Wrongful Death Claim in California

Losing a family member or significant other, particularly if it's caused by the actions of another, is an emotionally challenging ordeal. After grieving your loss, you may want to explore whether you have a valid wrongful death claim against the responsible party, which can help you pay for funeral expenses and day-to-day financial needs. To learn more, speak with a personal injury attorney who has experience with California wrongful death laws.

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