In Spires v. Simpson, No. E2015-00697-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 26, 2016), the Court of Appeals addressed an issue of first impression regarding the interpretation of a wrongful death statute related to a surviving spouse who has outstanding child support obligations.
In this case, decedent mother was killed in a car accident, leaving behind a surviving spouse and one child, whose biological father was the surviving spouse. At the time of the accident, the decedent and surviving spouse had been living apart and the child had been living only with the decedent. The spouse instituted a wrongful death action on behalf of himself, the child, and the decedent. When he instituted the suit, the spouse owed child support to children of four other women (though he did not owe any regarding the child at issue in this case because there was no court order regarding that child). While the wrongful death litigation was ongoing, a maternal uncle adopted the child, and the uncle petitioned to intervene on behalf of the child. Ultimately, the trial court held that Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-107(b) disqualified the surviving spouse from commencing the action or collecting proceeds due to his outstanding child support arrearages. The trial court substituted the child’s uncle as plaintiff and awarded the agreed damages in trust solely to the child. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed.