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Case Lesson: Iowa Spousal Desertion & Workers’ Compensation Benefits

11 Apr, 2023 Frank Ferreri

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Des Moines, IA (WorkersCompensation.com) -- It's not always the case that legal determinations of marital status figure significantly into a workers' compensation ruling, but sometimes whether or not people are married can make a difference on what benefits are owed to whom.

For example, in Blasdell v. Linnhaven, Inc., 2023 WL 2817474 (Iowa 04/07/23), the Hawkeye State's Top Court had to address whether a worker's husband, who had willfully deserted the worker years earlier, was due burial expenses and death benefits following the worker's overdose death.

The Couple

Roger and Heather Blasdell had a "nontraditional relationship," in which the couple: 1) had a child; 2) were married; 3) placed the child in a guardianship; and 4) eventually separated and moved to different towns. Following their separation Heather's son from a previous relationship moved with Roger until Roger began dating another woman.

In 2011 and 2012, Roger indicated on his taxes that he was "married filing" separately but did not indicate that Heather was his spouse on his 2012 return. Additionally, he listed himself as single on a W-4 form in 2011 and 2015.

The Injury

Heather experienced an injury on the job, and, as a result, was deemed totally disabled. During the workers' compensation proceedings, Heather stated that, while she was legally married to Roger, the pair were separated and had not divorced "because of money."

A couple of years later, Heather died from an overdose mix of prescription medication, prompting Roger to file a claim for benefits as Heather's surviving spouse. He also sought reimbursement for Heather's burial expenses, which he had paid.

Citing an Iowa statute, the carrier argued that Roger could not receive death benefits on account of his willfully deserting Heather without her fault.

The Hearing

At the hearing, a deputy commissioner considered testimony that:

  • Heather was listed as Roger's emergency contact at work, the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, and as a driver on his car insurance.
  • Heather would stay with Roger occasionally, and they would see each other almost weekly, even though they did not have a sexual relationship.
  • Angela, Roger's girlfriend, was not aware of financial support Roger provided to Heather.
  • Roger's assertion that he gave Heather $50-$100 "almost weekly."

The commissioner decided that Roger had willfully deserted Heather by no fault of Heather's and, thus, the commissioner denied Roger's claim for benefits.

In Court

On appeal to court, Roger fared better. According to the district court, the commissioner's finding that both parties intended to end the marriage suggested that Heather was not without fault. The court also found that Roger lacked the requisite intent to desert Heather, highlighting that:

  • There was a period in which Roger remained in the marital home with Heather's child.
  • Roger indicated on his 2011 and 2012 taxes that he was married.

The district court send the case back to the commissioner, at which point the carrier appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Legal Standard

In taking up the case, the High Court noted that, under Iowa law, a surviving spouse "shall be conclusively presumed to be wholly dependent upon the deceased employee" unless "it is shown that at the time of the injury the surviving spouse had willfully deserted the deceased without the fault of the deceased."

In looking to precedent, the court had to reach back to James Black Dry Goods Co. v. Iowa Indus. Com'r, 173 N.W. 23 (Iowa 1919), but found the century-old case on all fours with Roger and Heather's predicament.

In particular, the James Black case involved a couple that separated for financial reasons but maintained contact and helped each other financially. The court reasoned that Roger and Heather made a mutual decision to live apart and had an unconventional marriage at the time of Heather's injury.

Based on the facts, the court could not say that Roger intended to desert Heather or that Heather was without fault for their separation. Thus, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the district court, that the case should head back to the commissioner.

Takeaway

Separation and desertion are not synonymous for purposes of Iowa workers' compensation law. Instead, the following must be present to show desertion:

  1. The cessation of marriage relations.
  2. The intent to desert.
  3. A continuance of desertion.
  4. The absences of consent or misconduct of the party alleged to have been deserted.

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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

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