Household Services: Toward a More Comprehensive Measure

By Tinari, Frank D. | Journal of Forensic Economics, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Household Services: Toward a More Comprehensive Measure


Tinari, Frank D., Journal of Forensic Economics


In wrongful death cases, most court jurisdictions in the United States allow inclusion of the pecuniary value of the loss of household services as part of a claim for economic damages. Therefore, forensic economists often must determine the hourly quantity of household services that the decedent would have continued to provide to family members had the death not occurred.(1) One way of doing this is to ask surviving family members to describe the extent and types of services that the decedent typically provided. A listing of such services might include cutting the grass, washing cars, making household repairs, teaching children about sports activities, managing finances, making investments, moving furniture, shoveling snow, cooking, washing clothes, gardening, painting, grooming children, providing guidance and counsel to children, washing windows, general housekeeping, shopping, serving as chauffeur, nursing illnesses, and so forth. However, other family members may not know all the things the decedent did or the amount of time spent in each activity simply because they generally would not have been present monitoring them.(2)

To verify this information and to help ascertain what amount of services the decedent most likely would have continued to provide in future years, especially if the family's size and composition are expected to change over time, economists rely on various studies of household services. "These studies involve preparing a list of services and a time study sheet that is then taken into a sample of homes (i.e., households] of various sizes and used to record precisely the type of work and the time spent in accomplishing it." (Martin, p. 6-3) Unfortunately, these studies define the scope of household services in such a way as to place most if not all the emphasis upon the measurement of physical chores such as cleaning, shopping, cooking, home repair and maintenance. That this methodology is narrow to the point of undercounting the extent of household services has been recognized by a number of authors.

One careful delineation of the scope of such nonmarket activities was undertaken by King and Smith who adopted "a very narrow definition of nonmarket time" to include "only those activities traditionally associated with housework--the time spent preparing meals, cleaning the house, laundry, shopping, home repairs, and child care." (King and Smith, p. 60) They went on to explain that most of the household activities excluded from their analysis serve to benefit the decedent only (e.g., entertainment, hobbies, sports) or benefit the broader society (e.g., political activities). The reasons used by King and Smith in adopting a restricted interpretation of household services were twofold:

   First, even in states where full economic loss is the mandated principle,
   most litigation focuses on the activities we included. While we believe
   that this limited focus should be reconsidered, it remains the overwhelming
   norm in litigation practice. Second, loss to survivors is the dominant
   objective in most states; thus, most courts consider only activities from
   which survivors would have benefited directly. (pp. 60-61)

The position taken in this paper is that:

1) the "limited focus" of the current "norm in litigation practice" does, indeed, exclude other important components of services and, therefore, should be reconsidered, and

2) two important services that would have been provided by a deceased parent/spouse to surviving family members should be incorporated into a more comprehensive measure of household services. In particular, a) companionship services and b) advice, guidance and counsel services, both of which are typically ignored in descriptions and listings of household services, should be included in order to obtain a more accurate and comprehensive measurement of the loss of nonmarket activities to surviving family members. The implication of such inclusion is that if these two activities are reasonably measurable, then valuation of household services will be higher than generally found in forensic economists' reports of damages. …

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