In Israel, marriages that conform to the dictates of the applicable religious denomination and which change the status of a couple to married do not necessarily guarantee the receipt of a deceased employee's social benefits. The National Labour Court recently ruled that the widow (and previous divorcee) of an employee, who had remarried her former husband on his deathbed, was not entitled to the various social benefits which had accrued to the benefit of the deceased's dependants (Ben Ezra v HMO, Labour Appeal 17777-10-13).
The deceased employee and his widow (the plaintiff) had been married for decades and had three children together before they divorced. After the divorce, both parties had relationships with other partners and retained friendly relations with each other. The deceased employee was diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal form of cancer from which he died within weeks of the diagnosis. At the time of his illness, the deceased employee had had an ongoing relationship with another woman. After the deceased employee had been diagnosed, his ex-wife and children took over his care until his death. During this period, the deceased employee expressed his regret at having divorced the plaintiff and stated that he wished to re-marry her. A religious marriage ceremony was arranged in the hospital while the deceased was on his deathbed and receiving palliative care. At the same time, the deceased employee drew up two wills in which he bequeathed all entitlements from his employer to the plaintiff. The general validity of the marriage and the wills made by the deceased on his deathbed were not contested. However, the employer refused to compensate the widow for severance pay differentials and the redemption of unused sick leave pay, claiming that:
- such benefits were not part of the estate; and
- the widow was not a 'spouse' for the purposes of the social benefits claimed.
Not all social benefits to which an employee is entitled from an employment relationship are part of his or her estate in the event of death. Certain laws which provide for social benefits also define who the beneficiaries will be in the event of an employee's death. For example, the Protection of Salary Law 1957 provides that in the event of an employee's death, unpaid salary will be payable to:
- whomever the employee has designated for this purpose;
- the employee's spouse in the absence of such a designation; and
- the employee's estate in the absence of a spouse.
Another example is the Inheritance Law 1965, which excludes from a person's estate monies which were contributed to a provident fund (including insurance and pension funds), unless it is stipulated that they belong to the estate.
Similarly, the Severance Pay Law 1963 provides that in the event of an employee's death, severance will be payable to the employee's dependants. Further, the agreements that provide for the redemption of unpaid sick leave include a list of dependants who will be entitled to redemption in the event of an employee's death. In both cases, the list of dependants includes the 'spouse' (with certain variations in the definition thereof).
The regional and national labour courts both rejected the plaintiff's claim, ruling that:
- the social benefits of severance pay and the redemption of unpaid sick leave were not part of the deceased employee's estate and therefore could not be inherited; and
- the marriage – which had been conducted on the deceased employee's deathbed after the couple had been divorced and lived separate and mutually independent lives for many years, and which had no possible future – did not constitute a real marriage and was insufficient to transform the widow into a 'spouse' for the purpose of the social benefits in question, which were intended to support close family members who were dependant on the deceased.