The Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission (LIRC) has, once again, shown that it will go to great lengths to deny any workers’ compensation claim that it can, all under the guise of “strictly construing” the provisions of the state’s workers’ compensation law.
Most recently, it reached to great lengths to interpret the law in a way that would deprive a dependent ex-wife of survivor benefits after a fatal accident.
Dependent Ex-Wife Denied Survivor Benefits
The case, Bird v. U.S. Assets Recovery, is fairly straightforward. The worker and his wife were married until 2019. In 2021, the worker was killed on the job.
In the period between the divorce getting finalized and the fatal workplace accident, though, the couple reconciled. They lived together and had a joint bank account, which used their marital surname. They filed taxes as “married filing separate,” with the worker claiming his wife as a dependent because she could not work due do multiple medical conditions. The worker paid for his now-ex-wife’s bills and bought her a car in 2021 before his fatal accident.
When the ex-wife filed for survivor benefits under Missouri’s workers’ compensation law, however, the administrative law judge denied it, claiming that the ex-wife was not a dependent under the statute. The LIRC affirmed that ruling.
What is a “Dependent” Entitled to Survivor Benefits?
The entire case hinged on Missouri Statute 287.240, the law that provides survivor benefits to loved ones of fatally injured workers, and subsection (3), which defines the word “dependent.”
Importantly, this statute was amended in 2017.
Under the new version of the law, a “dependent” is generally a deceased worker’s:
- Live-in spouse,
- Spouse who is legally liable on the worker’s support, or
- Child, who can be either:
- Under the age of 18, or
- Incapacitated from wage earning and either legally liable on the parent’s support or living with the parent at the time of death.
However, the new version of the law also includes the following passage: “In all other cases questions of the degree of dependency shall be determined in accordance with the facts at the time of the injury.”
The ex-wife claimed that her degree of dependency on the deceased worker made her a dependent and entitled her to survivor benefits.
Importantly, she pointed to the old version of the law, which limited a “dependent” to a “relative by blood or marriage.” That language was no longer used. The expansion in the new law, she argued, showed an intent to shift away from bright-line rules and cover people who actually depended on the deceased worker.
The LIRC, however, pointed to Missouri Statute 287.800, which tells judges to strictly construe all aspects of workers’ compensation law. It then looked at the list of dependents in 287.240 and realized that, even for spouses and children, there were additional requirements to be met to be considered a “dependent.” For example, spouses must either live together or receive financial support to qualify.
Therefore, if the status alone was not sufficient to qualify for survivor benefits, the ex-wife’s lack of a legal status as the worker’s spouse disqualified her. The passage about “degree of dependency” that the ex-wife alluded to was, according to the LIRC, confined to apportioning survivor benefits among multiple dependents, in spite of the presence of several clauses in the statute that suggested otherwise.
Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at the Smith Law Office in Missouri
The personal injury and workers’ compensation attorneys at the Smith Law Office serve injured workers and their loved ones in St. Joseph, Springfield, Kansas City, and the rest of western Missouri. Contact them online or call their law office at (816) 875-9373.