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De mortuis nil nisi bonum

The death of an employee is an upsetting and traumatic occurrence. It is also very likely to be unexpected. Thus, it is preferable to have a basic framework in mind for dealing with such an occurrence before it happens.

This post is intended to give you an overview of three of the many important considerations resulting from a death occurring outside the workplace. It is not intended to cover incidents in which a death or serious accident or illness occurs at the workplace, on the job, or is related to work. For example, it does not address the requirement that an employer notify OSHA when an employee is killed on the job (among other events requiring such notice).

First, consider the outstanding salary or wages owed to the estate of the deceased, which may include paid time off and accrued but unused vacation (subject to applicable state law and company policy). Before issuing any further payment, make an inventory of all amounts and promptly consult with legal and tax advisors regarding issues, including the appropriate payee and taxation of any such payment. Be on the watch for communications from an executor of the estate or other personal representative of the deceased.

Second, with respect to return of the company’s electronic devices and other property, follow the same procedures that you would upon an employee’s resignation or termination. For example, suspend or terminate employee’s building and network access. Your IT department may be able to remotely secure electronic devices. Consider sending a company representative to collect any outstanding devices in person. On top of the death of a colleague and friend, you do not want to lose control of the company’s confidential or proprietary information.

Third, you will need to take stock of any benefits owed to the estate or beneficiaries of the deceased. A good first step is to gather all beneficiary designation forms (i.e., life insurance, retirement plans). There may be some surprises such as a deceased employee who failed to designate a new beneficiary after a contentious divorce. Plan administrators, and sometimes lawyers, will be able to provide you with important information to enable you to take the appropriate next steps. Note also that the death of an employee is a qualifying event under COBRA.

Numerous other issues are likely to arise, notwithstanding decisions regarding communications with family and staff, staffing, transition of work and customer relations. Both the issues at hand, and the next steps, will be personal to each business and situation. De mortuis nil nisi bonum: Of the dead, speak good things.

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