Bereavement Leave Explained: Laws, Work Policies & Getting Time Off

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It’s hard to find time to grieve in today’s modern culture because many funeral-related duties are crammed into just a few days. It can feel as if everything is rushed — from funeral preparations to writing a eulogy. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that many families don’t live in the same cities, and you might even live clear across the country from the deceased. 

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This is where bereavement leave comes in. Bereavement leave can be hard to navigate, especially if you're trying to coordinate matters immediately. This is because bereavement leave varies by state, employers, and can even be subject to the whims of your boss.

Companies aren’t required to give you bereavement leave — so we’ve got you covered, particularly if your employee handbook isn’t clear on this issue.

Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, it's tough to handle both the emotional and technical aspects of their unfinished business without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.

What is Bereavement Leave?

Bereavement leave is time taken off after the death of a close relative. This time is used to deal with practical matters: Making funeral arrangements, traveling to the funeral, and attending the event. Some people suggest using bereavement leave to grieve and readjust, but most periods of funeral leave are so short that this may not be workable.

It’s important to understand the expectations of how you can use your bereavement leave. Let’s say an immediate family member dies, but you weren’t close to the deceased and have no plans to attend the funeral.

If your boss expects a funeral card or obituary to prove the use of your time, this may cause issues. If you're taking bereavement leave to help with practical matters, clarify this with your employer.

Unfortunately for your pocketbook, bereavement leave is not usually compensated — except, of course, if bereavement leave is part of your benefits package.

Let’s say you have a terminally ill relative or a parent with health issues. Maybe negotiating for bereavement leave should be a priority before you decide you’ll take a particular job. This allows for honest, two-way communication about what you expect.

ยป MORE: Don't skip these commonly forgotten post loss tasks. View our guide.

 

Federal and State Laws on Bereavement Leave

There are no federal laws about required bereavement leave. That means it’s left up to states and individual employers. Most states don’t have laws for bereavement leave, either. Oregon requires employers to grant bereavement leave — but it’s only for certain employees.

This may change based on the employees and the company. Some companies only offer bereavement leave to full-time workers. Others only offer it to full-time workers who have completed a probation period. Some deny it altogether to part-time employees. Investigate your company’s specific approach.

Other states have their own laws. For example, the state of Illinois requires that certain employers give up to 10 days of unpaid leave to employees who have lost a child. In Maine, certain employers must grant leave when a relative who is an active duty member of the military dies. 

On the federal level, bereavement leave would ideally fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was established to protect workers’ rights. It is an overarching act that impacts procedures on the federal, state, and local levels.

The most important issues covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act include child labor, overtime pay, minimum wage, and recordkeeping. The regulations mandated by this act apply to both full- and part-time employees.

FLSA laws don’t protect a worker’s right to bereavement leave, though — the U.S. Department of Labor has left it up to individual states. As one of the most central cornerstones of the workers’ rights movement, the Fair Labor Standards Act makes no mention of bereavement leave. 

How to Understand Your Workplace’s Bereavement Policy

There are three crucial elements of bereavement policies. Requesting it is the start. Consult your employee handbook for answers. If there isn’t a handbook, speak to your supervisor or manager. He or she will be able to point you in the right direction. No matter how you start investigating workplace policy, remember to ask plenty of questions. 

Are you required to submit a request in writing? Do you need to ask if a colleague can cover your daily duties? Are there projects that must wrap up before you leave? No matter what you think the answers to the questions might be, ask them now. 

Planning is crucial, and it’s hard to predict everything — especially when you’re in a state of emotional turmoil. You know yourself better than anyone else, which means you can consider how this will affect you. Will you be mentally and emotionally able to return to work quickly? 

If you know it will be challenging, request a slow transition back to work. No laws require your employer to grant you this privilege, but your employer may be flexible.

Also, consider your options. Let’s say you need to leave immediately. Which colleagues could handle your projects? What could they do to help you? Make a timely request so you’re more likely to get what you want.

The last part of the bereavement policy is finding out if you need proof. Unfortunately, some employees claim bereavement leave and go on a vacation instead. Your employer might require you to show proof to make sure this doesn’t happen.

This might include a funeral handout, an obituary, or something similar. If your supervisor doesn't bring it up, make sure you do. If you're not one to collect physical mementos, make a point to do so while at the funeral — just in case you need it later. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Bereavement Leave

Navigating the world of bereavement leave is confusing. Here are some questions that may straighten things out for you.

Q: How long does bereavement leave usually last?

Bereavement leave lasts between three to five business days. On the longer end of the spectrum, your employer could give you a week off. That might not be enough, though. What if your relative had no one else and you need to sort through all of your relative’s papers and belongings? What if you’re mentally and emotionally unable to work? These types of situations aren’t covered by bereavement leave. 

Applying other types of leave to your situation may help. Let’s say you have a lot of paid time off (PTO) available. This may be the time to use it. Consider family leave, if that's included in your benefits package. Family leave is an absence supported by your employer so you can deal with family health problems. 

Q: How do you know if your employer offers bereavement leave?

Check your offer letter and employee handbook! It should be laid out under types of leave offered, or as part of your benefits package. If it’s not mentioned, it’s possible that your employer doesn’t offer it. Always check to be sure you’re aware of what your employer does and does not offer. 

Q: What relationships (e.g. immediate family, friends, etc.) qualify for bereavement leave?

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management defines who must die in order for you to be able to take bereavement leave. The list includes a child or stepchild, siblings, grandparents, and foster children.

It also includes parents, step-parents, parents-in-law, and spouses. Spouses also include domestic and same-sex partners. This comprehensive definition works for most people. 

Q: How do you put in a request for bereavement leave?

This is dependent on your company. Some prefer that you follow standard leave request procedures. You might also be able to submit a request through your company’s portal and that might be enough.

Some companies choose to handle this issue differently. Ask your company HR person for the exact procedure you’ll need to undergo. 

Finding Time to Grieve

Coordinating practical matters like bereavement leave as you grieve might be the last thing you want to do. Yet when you’re armed with information, it makes the process much easier to endure.

Think outside the box so you can arrive at the best way to handle leave. Whether you use bereavement, sick, or family leave, try to coordinate the best option available to you, and above all else, don’t be afraid to ask your employer lots of questions.

Looking for more help? Check out our guide to bereavement flights and bereavement hotel discounts.

Disclaimer: The information posted on this site is provided solely for informational and educational purposes and is not legal advice or tax advice. Contact an appropriate professional licensed in your jurisdiction for advice specific to your legal or tax situation.


Sources

  1. "Compliance Assistance - Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)". US Department of Labor. https://www.dol.gov/whd/flsa/
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