The circle of life always moves forward, with death as the single, inevitable constant. Despite that knowledge, I am always taken aback when I receive word that one of my clients has passed away. Unfortunately, this happens on numerous occasions throughout the year. Some individuals pass away from the effects of a work injury, and of course, others for a variety of causes both known and unknown.
A worker’s passing is always difficult for family and friends, including myself and our office staff who represented the worker. For many workers, our office has a profound and intimate involvement in their case, including a multitude of in-person conversations and phone communications (many involving significant and meaningful conversations related to the individual’s family and health, well-being, and status for the future).
When an injured worker dies, there is some potential relief for that worker’s dependents in the form of a death benefit claim. While no monetary compensation can be sufficient for a worker’s death, the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Act does provide the potential for some benefits for those left behind.
Specifically, if a worker dies from the effects of a work injury or if a permanently totally disabled employee dies, there is the potential for a death benefit equal to four times the worker’s annual earnings. Statutory “total” dependents are determined by the law: a surviving spouse, a domestic partner who lived with the deceased, or a surviving child under the age of 18 years old (or older if physically or mentally incapacitated). Other rules apply if there are no statutory dependents for those deemed “partially” dependent on the deceased injured worker (partial dependency is capped at two times the deceased’s annual salary).
Other rules apply under the Worker’s Compensation Act if an injured worker – who has permanent partial disability (PPD) left to be paid – dies with some PPD still owing. Unaccrued permanency disability benefits can be payable to dependents as death benefits, as well.
Additionally, burial expenses (up to $10,000) are payable in all cases where an employee dies from a work injury, regardless of whether or not there are dependents.
The rules for dependency benefits, admittedly, are convoluted and difficult to decipher. The rules about who is a total or partial dependent can be confusing and difficult to follow. Competent worker’s compensation counsel is necessary to navigate the ability to pursue a death benefit.