If you’ve lost a family member because of a work-related accident or disease, you may be entitled to death benefits through the North Carolina workers’ compensation system. Death benefits are paid to individuals who were financially dependent on the deceased worker, such as the worker’s spouse, children or other dependents. This article explains who is eligible for death benefits, how much you might receive, and how and when to file your claim for benefits. (To learn more about other types of benefits, see our article on workers' comp benefits in North Carolina.)
Unlike many other states, North Carolina does not limit eligibility for death benefits to blood relatives. Instead, any person who is either entirely or partially dependent on the deceased worker at the time of the accident or injury might be eligible for benefits.
Any person who is completely dependent on the deceased worker at the time of the accident or illness is entitled to death benefits. If there is more than one total dependent, the benefit is divided among the dependents equally.
North Carolina law automatically presumes that the following family members are total dependents:
Other individuals can qualify as total dependents on a case-by-case basis if they relied on the worker for support.
If there are no total dependents, individuals who were partially dependent on the worker will be eligible to receive death benefits. The weekly benefits will be split among partial dependents in proportion to the amount of support that person received from the deceased worker each year. This calculation can be complicated, so it is best to consult with an experienced attorney if you have questions about your share.
If the deceased worker dies without leaving any total or partial dependents, then the worker’s next of kin may receive a share of the benefits. A worker’s next of kin includes his or her children, siblings, and parents (regardless of age). In this situation, death benefits are distributed according to North Carolina intestacy law (the way inheritance rights are determined when a person dies without a will). If there is no next of kin, only burial expenses of up to $10,000 are paid.
In order for you to receive death benefits, a work-related injury or illness must have caused or contributed to your loved one’s death. If the worker dies in a job-related accident, his or her survivors will be eligible for death benefits. However, death benefits are also available where an injured or ill worker dies months or even years after a work-related accident or onset of an occupational illness. But this time period is limited: To be covered under North Carolina workers’ compensation, the employee’s death must occur within six years from the date of the injury or onset of disability related to an occupational disease, or within two years from a final determination that the worker had a disability as declared by the North Carolina Industrial Commission—whichever is later.
Additionally, the injury or disease does not need to be the sole cause of the worker’s death. Death benefits are allowed when the injury or illness “significantly contributes” to the worker’s death, even if there were other contributing factors for the death (such as a preexisting condition). For example, you should be able to claim death benefits if your spouse’s preexisting heart condition was exacerbated by work, leading to his death by heart attack.
Death benefits are usually not available when a worker commits suicide. There may be an exception, however, if the suicide was a result of depression caused by a work-related injury or illness.
Death benefits are paid in weekly installments equal to two-thirds of the worker’s average weekly wage at the time the illness or accident occurred. These benefits are subject to a statutory cap that changes each year. In 2018, you can receive no more than $992 per week and no less than $30 per week. North Carolina death benefits also include funeral and burial expenses up to $10,000.
These weekly death benefits continue for at 500 weeks, with two exceptions:
A deceased worker’s survivors must file a claim for death benefits within two years of the employee’s death. You should also notify the worker’s employer within 30 days of the death, even if you believe that the employer is already aware of it. You can do this by filing a Notice of Accident with the North Carolina Industrial Commission and sending a copy of the notice form to the employer.
If the worker’s employer refuses to make death benefit payments, you can request a hearing before the North Carolina Industrial Commission. At that hearing, both sides can present evidence, and the commission will determine whether you are eligible for death benefits and to how much you are entitled. Most people will need a lawyer's help at this stage. To see how much a lawyer will cost you, see our article on attorneys' fees in North Carolina workers' comp cases.