Most people are familiar with workers’ compensation benefits that are paid as the exclusive legal remedy for work-related injuries and illnesses. However, when an employee dies from such harm, California workers’ compensation law provides death benefits to certain surviving dependent relatives or household members.
California law in this regard is complex, so it is smart to consult with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney such as Keith More as soon as possible when a loved one dies from work-related injury or disease. Knowledgeable legal counsel will know what deadlines to meet, what documents to file and legal intricacies about death-benefit eligibility.
Calculation of deadlines for death-benefit claims is complicated, so waste no time in seeking the advice of a work comp lawyer.
(On a separate but related matter, any unpaid disability benefits that were owed to the claimant at the time of his or her death are owed to surviving dependents or if none, to the personal representative of the employee’s estate or to the heirs or “other persons entitled thereto.”)
Burial expenses up to $10,000, with the amount depending on the date of injury leading to death, are available.
In California, whether a survivor is eligible for death benefits requires either belonging to one of two special classes presumed to be totally dependent on the decedent, or proving that the survivor was actually partially or completely financially dependent on the worker and either on a list of eligible relatives or part of the deceased’s household.
A surviving spouse who earned $30,000 or less in the 12 months before the worker’s death is presumed to have been wholly dependent. A disabled child of any age or a minor child who lived with the deceased at the time of injury that caused death or for whom the deceased was financially responsible is also presumed to have been wholly dependent.
When financial dependence must be proven, the circumstances existing at the time of the worker’s injury or illness (rather than at the time of death) are used. Only people on a specific list of relatives or who were part of the deceased’s household, and can prove whole or partial financial dependence may be eligible for death benefits. The list of relatives includes:
Child (biological, adopted or step) or child born after the worker’s death
Father- or mother-in-law
Uncle or aunt
Brother- or sister-in-law
Nephew or niece
If there is more than one cause of death, for example, if the worker died from the effects of both an occupationally related illness and another disease not related to work, a full death benefit is normally still appropriate.
Calculation of the amount of the total death benefit award dependents are owed is complicated and depends on how many total dependents and how many partial dependents exist. Normally benefits are paid at a weekly rate, but sometimes it may be advantageous to negotiate a lump sum settlement (rather than receive periodic payments over time) such as when a surviving dependent is elderly. Experienced legal counsel can advise a surviving dependent about the issues to consider in a particular family.
A workers’ compensation attorney can also investigate whether there may be a third party (other than the employer) liable for the death, such as the manufacturer of a defective piece of equipment that caused a fatal work injury, and against whom a wrongful death suit may be possible.