Death Benefits Under Workers’ Compensation

When a person dies from an occupational disease or in a work-related accident, it is a tragic event on many levels for the surviving family and friends. The effect can be especially devastating when the person was the breadwinner for his or her family or had other people that were financially dependent on them.

However, North Carolina workers’ compensation laws provide financial death benefits to qualified survivors in such a situation. Certain dependents, and “next of kin” if no one was dependent, are eligible for these benefits.

Time Frame

In order for qualifying survivors to be eligible for death benefits under workers’ comp, the work-related death must have occurred either:

  • within two years of the final determination that the person has a disability that is covered by workers’ comp, or
  • within six years after the occupational disease or work injury that caused it, whichever is later.

Death benefits under workers’ comp will continue for up to 500 weeks, unless:

  • the dependent’s child reaches 18 years of age, at which point full benefits to that individual will cease, or

  • the decedent’s spouse was mentally or physically disabled at the time of the worker’s death to the point that they could not support themselves, in which case death benefits would continue for the remainder of the surviving spouse’s life or until they remarry.

Who can be Eligible to Receive Death Benefits?
  • Anyone who was entirely dependent on the deceased worker when they became ill or were injured may split the weekly benefit equally between them.

  • If the deceased employee had no complete dependents but did have people partially dependent, each of these partial dependents is eligible to receive a portion of the weekly benefit in proportion to the amount of yearly financial support they received from the decedent.

  • If all of the partial dependents qualify as “next of kin,” instead of receiving a proportional benefit as described above, they may all alternatively elect to receive a lump sum payment of an equal division of the death benefits.

    • “Next of kin”: For the purposes of death benefits in workers’ comp, is defined as only the child, mother, father, or sibling of the deceased employee. This includes adult children or siblings but does not include certain parents who have willfully abandoned the decedent.

  • If no complete or partial dependents exist but there are surviving next of kin, those next of kin will be eligible to receive an equal share of the lump sum, distributed according to the hierarchy laid out in North Carolina estate law for when someone dies without a will.

  • If there are neither dependents nor next of kin, the only death benefit will be for burial expenses up to $10,000 to the entitled party who assumed the expense.

What Comprises the Death Benefit?
  • The total weekly death benefit is calculated at two-thirds of the worker’s average weekly wage at the time of the accident or illness. This amount must be a minimum of $30 and is capped at a certain amount by statute. The maximum cap is recalculated at the beginning of each year to account for inflation. For 2016 the workers’ comp benefit cap is $944.

  • Burial expenses up to $10,000 are also available under workers’ comp death benefits.

Can I Still sue for Wrongful Death?

Workers’ compensation provides an income safety net for the deceased workers’ dependents, but the injury the worker’s loved ones suffer will far exceed that of mere lost income. Workers’ comp does not reimburse for things like pain and suffering, bereavement, loss of quality of life, and inconvenience. The surviving members of the decedent’s family may also have a wrongful death claim against the employer or a third party. The laws are written so as to prevent double recovery—the workers’ comp insurance carrier can recover the amount that the amount of workers’ comp death benefits that the person’s estate received from their personal injury award. However, many parties choose to simultaneously proceed with workers’ comp claims as well as separate actions in personal injury because funding through workers’ comp is available almost immediately after injury, whereas personal injury/wrongful death lawsuits can take much longer to resolve. It is just important to be aware that if you pursue and succeed on both types of claims you will most likely have to pay back the amount of workers’ comp you received after receiving the personal injury payout.

If you have lost a loved one to a work-related accident and think you may be eligible for death benefits, contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today to schedule a private consultation with one of our skilled workers’ compensation attorneys. We provide aggressive civil litigation in Charlotte, North Carolina and the surrounding areas, and our dedicated personal injury and workers’ comp attorneys are prepared to handle the burdensome procedure of obtaining the maximum amount of benefits to which you and your family are entitled during this difficult time.