Workers’ Compensation Reviewing Board Decision Discusses Widow’s § 31 Benefits

The Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act, under G. L. c. 152, § 31, provides benefits to the spouse of a deceased worker whose fatal injuries were caused by the workplace. The statute allows unmarried widows or widowers to receive 2/3 of the deceased’s average weekly wage. This benefit was designed to help living spouses who were not able to support themselves, and it can be reviewed at any time for cost-of-living increases, reductions, or termination.  In Freedman vs. Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office (Bd No. 012354-97), the wife of a deceased worker appealed the termination of her spousal benefits after an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled that she was fully self-supporting.

To determine whether or not the wife was self-supporting, the ALJ conducted an in-depth review of her living expenses. The ALJ found that her qualified weekly expenses were $768.50, which were more than covered by her salary of $894.97 a week. The woman had been receiving $751.04 from the § 31 benefit, and she appealed the ALJ’s finding, arguing that she was not fully self-supporting because she was putting her daughter through college.

The Board determined that the judge’s method of calculations was correct to determine what was “necessary and reasonable.” However, while the Board emphasized there is generally a high amount of deference to ALJ findings, it did not agree with the exclusion of college expenses. While there is not a “redline” for determining reasonable and necessary expenses, consideration is given to accustomed standards of living. The Board went on to hold that college tuition must be factored into a determination of whether a widow or widower is fully self-supporting.

The Board noted that § 31 does not specifically include college expenses when determining the reasonable and necessary expenses of the living spouse. The Board looked at the goals of the legislature during the creation of the Workers’ Compensation Act, which was to be “construed broadly, rather than narrowly,… to promote the accomplishment of its beneficent design.” The Board looked at the policy encouraging post-secondary education in a provision that provides an additional $6.00 a week to a living spouse of a deceased employee for any full-time student. The Board felt that this reveals the legislature’s intention to assist dependents older than 18 with education expenses.

The Board also looked at a family law ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court for support in its determination that college expenses should be included. In a decision from 1931, the Supreme Court ruled that lower courts may take into account the support and education of any child between 18 and 23 in its determination of maintenance, excluding costs beyond an undergraduate degree. The Board applied the logic of this case, but it increased the age consideration to 24, which is the IRS age restriction and limit for includable college expenses. The Board recommitted the case to the ALJ for further findings on the actual costs incurred for education, alongside other items addressed by the widow.

Even though the Workers’ Compensation Act provides many immediate benefits, challenges can still present themselves. The Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan can help you with your claim for benefits. For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office at 508.822.6600.

More Blog Posts:

Appeals Court of Massachusetts Case Reveals The Difficulty People Face When Contesting a Will, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, March 3, 2016
Rear-end Collision Appellate Case Helps Illustrate Burden of Proof Considerations in Massachusetts Personal Injury Cases, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, February 3, 2016