Massachusetts Reviewing Board Recommits Case Involving Entitlement of Spouse of Deceased Worker to Survivor Benefits

In an appeal involving spousal benefits issued to a deceased employee, the Massachusetts Reviewing Board of Industrial Accidents reviewed what constituted “reasonable” expenses for the surviving spouse. In this case, if the spouse was determined to be fully self-supporting, according to the workers’ compensation insurance company, she should not be receiving survivor’s benefits under § 31 of the Workers’ Compensation Act.

The employee worked as a corrections officer for Suffolk County and died in the course of his employment in 1997. His wife, the claimant in the case, began receiving § 31 benefits.  A few years later, the self-insurer sought to discontinue the claimant’s benefits, arguing that she was fully self-supporting because she worked as a registered nurse, making $894.97 weekly. Her § 31 benefit in 2012 was $551.30, supplemented by an adjustment under § 34B of $199.74, giving her a total of $751.04.

During a hearing regarding her entitlement to benefits, the claimant testified as to her living expenses, and the judge found these to be “substantially” below her average weekly wage of $894.97.  He found the claimant was fully self-supporting and not entitled to survivor’s benefits under § 31.

In an appeal, the claimant alleged that the judge improperly discounted certain claimed expenses and that they should have been part of her weekly living costs, which would have resulted in a total larger than her earnings.  She sought to reverse the judge’s decision and to be deemed “not fully self-supporting,” which would make her entitled to continue her benefits under § 31.

The Board stated that the judge had analyzed the claimant’s weekly expenses in a reasonable manner, taking into account her standard of living at the time the continuing § 31 benefits were sought.  The Board stated he was required to compare permitted expenses with the claimant’s actual earnings so that he could weigh the reasonableness of the costs.

Before turning to the claimant’s argument, the Board stated that there is not a “redline” for setting forth expenses that are reasonable or necessary. Each case must be assessed on its own merits, since widows who are accustomed to a higher standard of living should be allowed higher earnings.

Another issue the Board addressed was whether college expenses for a child of the deceased employee should be considered a reasonable and necessary expense of the widow. The Board stated that by finding that college expenses solely benefited the claimant’s daughter, the judge did not take into account the “beneficent design” of the Workers’ Compensation Act.  Section 31 makes clear that post-high school education is encouraged, and the legislature contemplated and recognized the children of the deceased over 18 who were full-time students as a certain class of dependents.

The Board stated that in consideration of the purpose of the Act, and the policies that acknowledged the primacy of education, the reasonable cost of a college education for former dependents of a deceased employee is a necessary expense of a surviving spouse and should be considered when determining whether the spouse is “self-supporting” under § 31. The costs of a non-minor child’s college education should be factored into a widow’s reasonable and necessary expenses.

Next, the Board addressed whether daycare for a minor child who was not the offspring of the deceased employee should be considered when determining the amount of expenses allowed under § 31. The Board held that reasonable costs for day care should be included in considered expenses.

Finally, regarding the payment of her credit card balance, the Board stated that it is not true that a high credit card balance per se means a claimant is not fully self-supporting. The Board recommitted the case for further findings, awarding attorney’s fees to the claimant because she prevailed on appeal.

If you or a loved one has suffered injuries while working on a job site, you may be entitled to receive compensation for your injuries and lost wages. The Massachusetts attorneys at Pulgini & Norton offer experienced legal representation for injured clients pursuing workers’ compensation benefits. To discuss your claim with one of our hardworking attorneys, contact our office at (781) 843-2200 or online and schedule a consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Reviewing Board Holds Employee Has Right to Compensation, Even When Employer Files for Bankruptcy, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, July 7, 2016

Massachusetts Reviewing Board Finds in Favor of Employee Suffering Disability due to Repetitive, Strenuous Work, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, June 30, 2016

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