When an employee dies, employers ask, “Who gets the employee’s wages, and how do I pay them without getting into trouble?” While employers might be tempted to consult the California Labor Code (see discussion of payment of wages to a terminated employee here), under certain circumstances, paying wages earned by a deceased employee is governed by the California Probate Code.
Sections 13600-13606 address when and to whom an employer should pay wages owed to a deceased employee. We focus here on cases where the deceased employee has left a surviving spouse. Section 13600 provides a method much more expedient that the usual probate process by which a surviving spouse may receive the wages owed to the deceased spouse. (Other states differ. In New York, for example, employers can make reasonable efforts to contact the administrator of the estate of the deceased employee to pay wages within the time wages generally must be paid).)
Upon the death of an employee, a California employer must pay the deceased’s spouse the earned “salary or other compensation … including compensation for unused vacation, not in excess of fifteen thousand dollars.” Cal. Prob. Code § 13600. The surviving spouse (or the conservator of the estate of the surviving spouse) must state under penalty of perjury this information:
- The name of the decedent.
- The date and place of the decedent’s death.
- The declarant is either (A) “the surviving spouse of the decedent” or (B) “the guardian or conservator of the estate of the surviving spouse of the decedent.”
- “The surviving spouse … is entitled to the earnings of the decedent under the decedent’s will or by intestate succession and no one else has a superior right to the earnings.”
- “No proceeding is now being or has been conducted in California for administration of the decedent’s estate.”
- “Sections 13600 to 13605, inclusive, of the California Probate Code require that the earnings of the decedent, including compensation for unused vacation, not in excess of fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) net, be paid promptly to the … declarant.”
- “Neither the surviving spouse, nor anyone acting on behalf of the surviving spouse, has a pending request to collect compensation owed by another employer for personal services of the decedent under Sections 13600 to 13605, inclusive, of the California Probate Code.”
- “Neither the surviving spouse, nor anyone acting on behalf of the surviving spouse, has collected any compensation owed by an employer for personal services of the decedent under Sections 13600 to 13605, inclusive, of the California Probate Code except the sum of _____ dollars ($_____) which was collected from _____.”
- “The … declarant requests … the salary or other compensation owed by you for personal services of the decedent, including compensation for unused vacation, not to exceed fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) net, less the amount of _____ dollars ($_____) which was previously collected.”
- “The … declarant affirms or declares under penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of California that the foregoing is true and correct.”
Cal. Prob. Code § 13601.
The employer, upon receiving such a statement and “reasonable proof of identity of the surviving spouse,” must “promptly pay” the surviving spouse “the earnings of the decedent, including compensation for unused vacation, not in excess of fifteen thousand dollars.” Cal. Prob. Code §§ 13601(b), 13602.
If the surviving spouse’s statement satisfies the requirements of Probate Code section 13601, and adequate identification is provided, the employer is discharged “from any further liability with respect to the compensation paid. The employer may rely in good faith on the statement and has no duty to inquire into its truth. Cal. Prob. Code § 13603.
If an employer refuses to pay wages under Section 13600, the surviving spouse can sue to recover the wages, and, if the employer “acted unreasonably in refusing to pay,” can collect reasonable attorney fees. Cal. Prob. Code § 13604. Actions to recover wages would likely be brought in the Probate Division of the California Superior Court, as the action arises under the Probate Code.
By following California Probate Code sections 13600-13606, employers can thus discharge their liability regarding the deceased’s wages through a relatively straightforward process that also affords the surviving spouse ready access to earned wages and earned but unpaid vacation pay.