If you’ve lost a family member because of a work-related injury or disease, you may be entitled to receive death benefits through your state’s workers’ compensation system. This article will give you a general idea of who is eligible to receive benefits, how much you might receive, and for how long. However, because workers’ compensation laws are different in each state, the exact rules will be determined by the state where you file for benefits.
Death benefits are intended to help compensate certain family members for the loss of financial support they had received from the deceased employee. While the exact eligibility requirements vary from state to state, death benefits are usually (but not always) reserved for those who were related to the deceased employee by blood or marriage—typically spouses, children, and other close relatives—who lived with and depended on the deceased employee for their living expenses. Certain states, like Ohio, also allow some benefits for relatives who were only partially dependent on the deceased employee (Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 4123.59 (2018)).
There are different rules for deciding who qualifies as a dependent, depending on their relationship to the deceased employee and state law. Children under 18 are almost always considered dependents. The same goes for older children who have certain physical or mental disabilities that make them unable to earn a living. Some states also extend eligibility to children between 18 and 25 who are enrolled in qualifying educational or vocational programs.
Many states assume that spouses are dependents regardless of their own incomes. In other states, spouses won’t necessarily qualify if they earn over a certain amount of money, or they may have to prove their financial dependence no matter how much they earn.
For all other family members, eligibility is usually determined based on the specific circumstances and evidence in each case.
In order to receive death benefits, a work-related injury or illness must have caused or contributed to your loved one’s death. But these benefits aren’t limited to situations where an employee dies on the job, such as in a serious workplace accident. Injured workers may die months or years later—although a few states, like Virginia, don’t allow benefits for deaths that happened too many years after the original accident (Va. Code Ann. § 65.2-512(A) (2018)). Death benefits may also be available when employees eventually die from illnesses they developed as a result of working conditions, like exposure to dangerous chemicals.
Even if your loved one had other medical conditions unrelated to work, you still may be eligible for death benefits if the work injury or occupational disease contributed to or accelerated the death. For example, you might be able to claim death benefits if a workplace accident aggravated your husband’s pre-existing heart condition and led to his death. (Learn more about the range of medical conditions covered by workers’ comp.)
Death benefits are often paid in regular installments. The amount of those payments is based on a percentage of what the employee used to earn before the injury. The percentage varies from state to state, but the typical weekly payment is two-thirds of the deceased employee’s average weekly wage, with maximum and minimum amounts.
Instead of installment payments, some states pay a one-time lump sum, usually representing two-thirds of the deceased employee’s wages for a certain period of time, such as two years. The lump sum is also generally subject to a minimum or maximum amount. Even in states that pay installment benefits, you may be able to negotiate a lump-sum settlement of your death benefits.
In some states, the total amount of death benefits is the same regardless of how many dependents there are. For example, the same total benefit amount may be divided among a surviving spouse and several dependent children. In other states, however, the benefit amount increases as the number of dependents increases.
If you’re also receiving survivors’ benefits through Social Security, there may be an offset that reduces your workers’ comp death benefits (see, for example, N.Y. Workers’ Comp. Law § 16).
When death benefits are paid in installments, there are limits on how long those payments continue. In many states, surviving spouses receive benefits until their own death or remarriage. Children can typically receive death benefits until they turn 18, or in some cases, until they complete certain types of post-secondary education or vocational training. In other states, death benefits will stop after a certain number of weeks or a certain maximum dollar amount has been reached, regardless of the children’s age or the surviving spouse's remarriage.
In all states, workers’ comp pays at least a portion of funeral expenses for employees who've died as a result of their work injuries. There’s usually a maximum amount, which could be anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than ten thousand dollars.
Workers’ comp also covers the medical treatment that the employee received before dying. In general, you shouldn’t be stuck paying remaining medical bills. However, the employee’s insurance company (or the state workers’ compensation agency) may review those bills to ensure that the treatment was necessary and related to the work injury or illness.
There are strict time limits for filing a claim for death benefits. In many states, the limit is one or two years from the date of death or the last payment of disability benefits. However, your state’s laws might have longer or shorter time limits. For that reason, it’s best to make a claim as soon as possible.
Because the workers’ comp rules for death benefits are complicated and vary from state to state, you should consider speaking with a workers’ compensation lawyer if you think you might qualify. These benefits can be an important financial resource for surviving dependents. But depending on your relationship with the deceased employee, you may need help proving that you relied on that person’s income or disability benefits to get by. An experienced workers’ comp attorney can explain how your state’s laws apply to your situation, how to make a claim for death benefit, and how to protect your rights in the process. And it's good to know that because of the way workers' comp lawyers charge for their services, the lawyer generally will receive only a limited percentage of the benefits you receive.
If your loved one already had a worker’s comp attorney, that’s a good place to start. Otherwise, you can use Nolo’s lawyer directory for a list of attorneys in your area.