On May 17, 2023, the Ohio Supreme Court handed down its opinion on State ex rel. McDonald v. Indus Comm., 2023-Ohio-1620. This decision establishes an interesting precedent about the survivorship rights of unmarried partners.
Amanda Carpenter initially brought this case. Carpenter’s fiancé Christopher McDonald died in an accident while at a job site. Carpenter filed with the Industrial Commission of Ohio, a governmental organization, for death benefits. She identified herself as his fiancé and partner on her application. She also submitted an affidavit that states she and McDonald were in a relationship for 11 years, owned property together, and had two children, and that McDonald provided financial support for her and their children.
The Industrial Commission of Ohio denied her personal request for death benefits, although they did award benefits to the children. This decision was based on the fact that Carpenter and McDonald were an unmarried couple, and therefore Carpenter was not owed any benefits.
The relevant state code for this case is R.C. 4123.59. This code discusses workers’ compensation death benefits and which dependents are entitled to them. The most pertinent part, division (D)(2) reads, “In all other cases, the question of dependency, in whole or in part, shall be determined in accordance with the facts in each particular case existing at the time of the injury resulting in the death of such employee, but no person shall be considered as dependent unless such person is a member of the family of the deceased employee, or bears to the deceased employee the relation of surviving spouse, lineal descendant, ancestor, or brother or sister.”
The words “bears to the deceased employee the relation of surviving spouse” is important in this context. Carpenter and her attorneys argued that she did, indeed, bear the relation of surviving spouse, even though they were not legally married. The case worked its way up to the Ohio Supreme Court.
It’s important to realize that the Ohio Supreme Court did not award Carpenter death benefits, as that’s out of their purview. However, they did unanimously agree that the Commission should reconsider the claim and specifically consider Carpenter as a potential family member of McDonald. The court pointed to the fact that the word “or” was used in the final sentence of the passage quoted above, and if it was intended for the code to apply only to legally married partners, it would use the word “and” in that spot, rather than “or.”
Although the ruling does not provide Carpenter with benefits directly, it is an important precedent as it clarifies that there may not be a legal relationship required in Ohio in order for survivors to receive workers’ compensation death benefits.
What the Decision Means for Employees
This decision clarifies a significant area of the law for Ohio workers and their families. The entire concept of family may be redefined to better meet the needs of people in different situations. This case confirms that one does not necessarily need a legal relationship to have a familial relationship.
Some of the situations where removing the requirement for a legal relationship might help include:
- Similar to this situation, if two unmarried parents own property and have children together: Like Carpenter and McDonald, they might act as a married couple would, but not (or not yet) have a legal marriage;
- If a grandchild is living with a grandparent, but no existing official custody order is in place;
- If a stepparent dies and their stepchild is not legally a dependent;
- In situations where a couple has not married but has shown a long-term commitment to one another.
It’s important to realize that this decision is not reestablishing common law marriages in Ohio, which have not been legal since 1991.
However, the decision does open the door to the idea that codes and statutes that have long appeared to be cut and dried may contain language that allows family members without a legal connection to receive death benefits. In a world where relationships are not static and families are created in different sorts of ways, this decision is proof that the law often has the ability to adapt to better reflect the needs of society.
Is your family affected?
If this decision might have an impact on a workers’ compensation claim for you or your family, contact the experienced workers’ compensation attorneys of Plevin & Gallucci to schedule a free consultation.