What if the ultimate tragedy occurs at the workplace and an employee is killed at work or dies as a result of work-related injuries? The employee’s family is entitled to receive “dependency benefits,” to compensate them for the loss of their loved one’s income. Similar to the limitation of lifetime workers’ compensation benefits, the family is not entitled to receive damages for pain and suffering paid by the employer. Rather, the employee’s dependents may be paid up to 70% of his average weekly wage at the time of death, until they would have no longer been dependent upon the injured worker.
The N.J. Workers’ Compensation Act addresses death benefits in NJSA 34:15-13, known as the “Dependency” statute. A long line of family members could qualify as dependent upon the decedent at the time of death, including the spouse, parents, children, siblings, and even nieces and nephews. The deceased spouse and children under 18 years old (or under 23, if enrolled as a full-time student), who were living in the same household as the injured worker are presumed to have been dependent upon the decedent. Family members other than the spouse and children must prove that they were financially dependent upon the injured worker to receive benefits.
New Jersey does not recognize common law marriages. A spouse must present a marriage or civil union certificate to receive dependency benefits in the event of a workplace death. Accordingly, if an injured worker is in danger of perishing from his injuries, consideration should be given to marrying that long-time sweetheart, if a marriage would not otherwise have negative emotional or financial implications.
No matter how large of a family surrounded an injured worker, the maximum benefit rate is 70% of his wages – split among all eligible dependents. As a group, the family cannot monetarily collect more from workers’ compensation than they would have if the injured worker was still earning an income. For example, if the injured worker was earning a gross weekly wage of $1000, his dependents would share a benefit of $700 per week.
It is the responsibility of the Judge of Compensation to decide the proportion of benefits which will be paid to each dependent, based upon their relative dependency on the injured worker. If the decedent had minor children, the surviving parent would collect the benefits on their behalf. The division of benefits becomes more complicated when the decedent is remarried or has children who were not part of his household. In the case of divorce, the benefits owed to the surviving children will be paid in proportion to the percentage of the decedent’s income they received during his lifetime.
Prior to 1995, the statute stated that benefits could be terminated or reduced by any income earned by the injured workers’ dependent. Currently under NJ law, surviving family members who were dependent upon the decedent do not lose their benefits simply because they are earn their own income.
For the surviving spouse, dependency benefits are initially payable for 450 weeks (approximate 8 ½ years), unless the spouse remarries, which will result in the termination of benefits. Benefits will continue for minor dependents until they reach the age of 18 years, or 23 years old if enrolled as a full-time student.
The rule regarding remarriage does not apply to police officers and firefighters who are killed in the line of duty. The surviving spouses of these first responders are entitled to receive continued dependency benefits for either the remainder of the 450-week full compensation period, or 100 times the weekly compensation rate, to be paid in one lump sum, whichever is less.
The bottom line is that NJ workers’ compensation law regarding death benefits is quite complex. If your family loses a loved one due to a work accident or injury, it is crucial to obtain the advice of a competent workers’ compensation attorney.