Determining “Dependency” for Workers’ Compensation Death Benefits

The issue of “dependency,” with respect to the receipt of workers’ compensation death benefits, is generally determined either as of the date of the worker’s death or the date of the accident that caused his death. Those individuals who are, therefore, “dependents” on the requisite date will be eligible to receive death benefits in an amount commensurate with the measure of dependency on the worker, i.e. total or partial dependency.

As a threshold matter, workers’ compensation laws themselves do not generally establish the existence of basic domestic relationships such as wife, husband, widow, widower, child, and parent. Rather, these relationships are usually determined based on the laws of the applicable state and the corresponding construction they have been given. The interpretation of the existence of these domestic relationships is applied broadly in order to do justice under the purpose of the workers’ compensation law. For example, a common law marriage in jurisdictions permitting the same will often be recognized for the receipt of benefits. Of importance, many workers’ compensation statutes include a conclusive presumption that the spouse and young children living with the worker at the time of his death are entitled to death benefits.

Sometimes, rather than identify specific relationships, the workers’ compensation statute will merely identify dependents as those members of the worker’s family or his household. In harmony with the broad interpretations used to extend benefits to those who are in need, courts have held that such “members” can include relatives who are not immediate as well as unrelated children who were taken in and supported by the worker.

The legitimacy of a worker’s child has no effect on the child’s ability to receive death benefits. Providing benefits only to “legitimate” children would discriminate against illegitimate children and violate their rights under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.