FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) _ An unemployed immigrant and his six children were forced to rely on charity despite winning a $3.45 million malpractice suit because attorneys and a hospital caring for his comatose wife split the award.

Those involved say the treatment of Linval Ayton's family is entirely legal under Florida law, which does not recognize his 20-year common-law marriage, and does not allow the children to benefit unless their mother dies.

''We were sympathetic. All the judges were sympathetic,'' said J.B. Spence, the high-powered personal injury attorney who handled much of the case. ''But everyone was locked in a set of legal handcuffs,'' he added. ''The culprit here is the law.''

The tragedy for Ayton, 43, an illiterate Jamaican immigrant, began when his longtime common-law wife Maudeline Ford, then 42, entered the Broward Medical Center for what should have been a routine childbirth in January 1985.

Ms. Ford ran a small store and had been the only support of the family after Ayton ruptured a disk and lost his job as a school janitor.

But something went wrong during a Caesarean section to deliver the baby, and Ms. Ford's heart stopped. In the time it took to get her heart started again, Ms. Ford's brain suffered damage that has left her comatose.

The baby was born in excellent condition.

Ayton's sister-in-law eventually called attorney Phillip Auerbach after seeing his ad on television, and Auerbach in turn brought in Spence.

There is dispute over whether the attorneys told Ayton he and his children would be provided for under a possible settlement.

But whatever Ayton was told, quirks in Florida law deprived the family of any benefits from the $3.45 million eventually awarded after 30 months and nine volumes of litigation.

One quirk was that state law does not recognize common-law marriages, even though Ayton and Ms. Ford had been together almost 20 years. That means he had no legal right to benefit from loss of her companionship.

The six children, ranging in age from 3 to 19, could have received money except for another twist - state law recognizes their loss of companionship only when the mother dies. And modern technology is still keeping her alive in the North Miami Medical Center, at the cost of $1,000 a day.

Ayton and the children wound up relying on the sister-in-law, who would sometimes drop off a chicken or a loaf of bread, and charity.

''I went to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army and begged for food,'' Ayton said. ''Mostly canned food, vegetables and corn. We were living by the mercy of God.''

The sympathetic judge in the case, Circuit Judge James Reasbeck, eventually tried to give the family $104,000. But Probate Judge Raymond Hare forced Ayton to pay it back a few months later.

''There was no legal basis for him to have it,'' said Hare. ''He wasn't her legal spouse.''

The attorneys say their 45 percent fee, plus thousands of dollars in expenses, were legitimate and legal. Spence said the case was very difficult, and called winning it ''a home run.''

Ms. Ford won a total of $1.8 million, but that money was put into a trust fund to pay for her medical expenses. Attorneys say the hospital bills will be paid out of the interest, and the children will eventually inherit the principle.

But the fund's administrator, Fred Koerner, assistant vice president of Barnett Banks, disputes that.

He said Ms. Ford's care now costs $380,000 a year, and has used up almost half of the principle.

''At the current rate, we estimate the money will last three years or less,'' said Koerner.

Ayton's family was finally saved from destitution eight months ago when the court agreed to parcel $2,500 a month out of a trust fund on behalf of the five minor children. The money keeps the children in food and decent clothes, and has allowed them to return to regular classes.

Ayton, as their legal guardian, could petition the court to pull the plug on his comatose wife, whom he visits almost daily. That would allow the children to have what remains of the trust fund.

But he refuses.

''We have been poor all of our lives,'' said Ayton. ''I can do without any of this money. Because to me, this money comes along like a kind of blood money.''