Can a wrongful death tort recovery include compensation for lost estate tax benefits?

No, says the New Jersey Supreme Court in Tuesday’s Beim v. Hulfish (N.J. Jan. 28, 2014). The facts:

John Kellogg, ninety-seven years of age, died in 2008 following a motor vehicle accident allegedly caused by the negligence of two of the defendants. His death occurred on the eve of significant changes in federal tax law. Plaintiffs — Kellogg’s daughters, the executors of his estate and the trustee of a marital trust — allege that had Kellogg survived until 2009, his estate would have paid substantially less in taxes than it did under the tax laws governing in 2008. They further assert that if Kellogg died in any of the three years that followed, his estate would have paid no federal tax at all. Plaintiffs contend that defendants should be held liable for the estate tax paid by Kellogg’s estate under the federal tax laws that governed in 2008.

The core of the reasoning:

Plaintiffs’ proposed estate tax damages are starkly different from the categories of losses held to constitute pecuniary injuries under the Act. Economic losses, measured in accordance with educational, occupational, demographic and other relevant factors, derive from the decedent’s expected contributions during his or her continued lifetime, whether that lifetime would have been be measured in months, years or decades…. Federal estate taxes are inherently different from the damages recognized to be “pecuniary injuries” under [the statute wrongful death statute]. They bear no nexus to the financial support or the services that a decedent would have provided to his or her heirs had he or she survived.

Tax law isn’t my field, but tort law is, and I found this to be an interesting result.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Eugene Volokh | January 30