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Governor Brown signed new law clarifying a death benefit presumption.

Existing law provides that totally dependent minor children of the deceased worker shall receive death benefits until the youngest child attains 18 years of age, or until the death of a child physically or mentally incapacitated from earning, at a weekly rate of at least $224. Existing law conclusively presumes, for the purpose of determining the amount of workers’ compensation benefits, that children under 18, or certain adult children, who were living with the employee-parent at the time of injury resulting in death, or for whose maintenance the employee-parent was legally liable at the time of the injury resulting in death, is wholly dependent for support on the deceased employee-parent if there is no surviving totally dependent parent.

A.B. 607 eliminates the requirement that, in order to conclusively presume that children under 18, or certain adult children, are wholly dependent for support on the deceased employee-parent, there not be a surviving totally dependent parent.

According to the sponsor, the Police Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), this law was necessary to clarify the rights of totally disabled children of employees who have died on the job to receive dependent death benefits. PORAC claims that an unusual phrase in the statute appears to limit the scope of death benefits to cases where there is a merely partially dependent surviving spouse, but denies the expanded “disabled child” death benefit where there is a fully dependent surviving spouse. The bill deletes this offending clause, thereby ensuring that totally disabled dependent children regardless of age obtain the death benefit to which they should be entitled.

While PORAC is the sponsor of this measure, the death benefit being addressed by the bill is not one of the “special” public safety officer benefits that are afforded to defined police and firefighters. Rather, this new law applies to the totally disabled dependent children of any employee who dies as a result of a job-related injury.

While there does not appear to be any rigorous quantification of the extent to which the new law might expand the number of cases where this death benefit is awarded, after legislative consultation with representatives of employer organizations, the consensus seemed to be that there are relatively few cases, and of those, the beneficiaries were probably intended to be covered by the existing statute.

Back in 2002, AB 749 enacted a broad range of workers’ compensation benefit increases, notably in the amounts paid for permanent disabilities. However, one small piece of that measure adopted the language at issue in AB 607. While it remains unclear precisely what was intended by the 2002 language when it was enacted, correcting the resulting confusion seems consistent with the intent of the original enactment.