Iowa Code section 85.31(1)(a) states in relevant part, “When death results from the [workplace] injury, the employer shall pay the dependents who were wholly dependent on the earnings of the employee for support at the time of the injury.” Iowa Code section 85.42(1)(a) establishes that a surviving spouse will be considered to be wholly dependent upon the deceased employee, unless it is shown that the “surviving spouse had willfully deserted the deceased without fault of the deceased.”
Roger and Heather Blasdell were married in 2008. Due to financial reasons, Heather moved away from the family to find work, but the two remained married. They communicated a few times a month and Roger continued to provide financial support to Heather. In 2012, Heather sustained an injury while working. She was deemed permanently injured and was awarded workers’ compensation benefits. In 2016, Heather died from an overdose of prescription medication. Roger filed a claim for death benefits as Heather’s surviving spouse which he was denied based on the exception to Iowa Code 85.42(1).
Despite living apart from each other for so many years, Iowa law does not recognize common law divorce. So, the question in this case was whether Roger willfully deserted Heather without fault of her own such to justify denial of his benefits. The Supreme Court examined the spousal desertion exception to evaluate this case, noting that separation and desertion are not synonymous.
After extensive testimony, the Court found that Roger did not have the intent to desert Heather. The two lived in different residences for purposes of finding work, they maintained contact, and supported each other financially. Although Roger had engaged in a romantic relationship with another woman during this time, the Court stated there is no exception in the statute precluding a surviving spouse from receiving workers’ compensation benefits for adultery. The Court overturned the workers’ compensation commission’s denial of benefits.
Roger Blasdell v. Linnhaven, Inc. and Accident Fund National Insurance Company/United Heartland, No. 21-1968 (Iowa April 7, 2023).