Unwanted lump sum
He was a veteran fire captain killed in the line of duty and remembered with a very public funeral. Members of the fire department filled the sanctuary. The casket was draped with the American flag, and his pallbearers were earnest young firefighters in starched dress uniforms. My dad would have laughed about the fuss that was made over his death at the scene of a freeway accident. All the local TV stations were there. The mayor and council members were there. It was two days before the city election.
The faces of the council members remained clear in my memory on the day the attorney called. It was the first I heard that a group of family members had initiated a wrongful death claim. They'd hired a large law firm. Did I plan to participate?
The claim seemed vastly divergent from the true intent of a wrongful death action. I saw no negligence in the driver or the company that owned the truck that hit him. A wrongful death in the line of duty seemed a contradiction in terms.
So often, our first impulse is to assign blame for accidents. Certainly there are tragic cases of injury and death involving negligence or malice, but how much finer it is to remember that life is not without risk. How much finer for all the young firefighters? Still, it wasn't as if I was financially secure. There was a hefty mortgage payment. My daughter was busy applying to out-of-state colleges, and I was in the first year of a career change. A large lump-sum payment could make life easier in some ways, but more complicated in others.
I'd long considered liability suits to be an abused device of estate creation. Compromised principles might be more uncomfortable than a little financial uncertainty. Terms like "entitled" and "survivor" are defined legally, not morally.
My cooperation would expedite the claim. Signed affidavits from all adult children are normally required to process a US Department of Justice "claim for death benefits." I chose not to sign. I didn't want the money and what went with it.
My response to the attorney was a nonnegotiable "no." Outwardly, I remained firm in my decision during the months that followed. I occasionally felt like an over-conscientious kid again - the only one the playground who missed out on the fun because she wouldn't sneak on to the school roof.
"Principles are expensive," remarked a confidante.
"But how often in life do you actually get to stand up for something you believe?" observed a close friend. His words rang truest for me, but in private I sometimes questioned the common sense of my decision.
It was more than a year before the certified letter arrived. Over $1 million would be disbursed; the law firm would receive 20 percent. To be eligible, the family waived remaining worker's compensation from the fire department.
What a relief it was to learn the process was complete. No more lingering temptation to make that last minute call to claim a share. H.G. Wells once said "righteous indignation is jealousy with a halo." It was a lot of money to truly ignore. At times I'd felt I was being tested.
Was I overzealous? Had I passed the test?
I had sold assets and depleted my retirement accounts. There had been moments of doubt, but I managed to keep our home. My daughter completed a year of college, and my new career was growing at a steady if not meteoric rate.
What I learned is to trust that money always comes: just enough and not one minute before I really need it. Everyone responds a little differently to tragedy. Some believe that grief and anger can be vindicated with a large lump sum. It gives me greater peace to remember my dad as heroic and not as a victim of negligence, and my principles remain intact.
The year-long test was self-corrected in the end, but I'm still that over-conscientious kid at heart, and I believe I passed.
*Tina Dybvik is a writer in Minnetonka, Minn.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society