What Is Bereavement Leave, and How Does It Work?

December 4, 2023
Bereavement Leave

Dealing with the death of a family member or other loved one can be difficult on many levels. For one, it's hard to focus on the minutiae of daily life, including job-related tasks, amid emotional turmoil. Often, employees in mourning request some time off from work during this distressing time. Bereavement leave is intended to allow employees this time and space away from work to grieve.

That may sound reasonable, intuitive and rather "automatic" to accommodate. But the specifics and logistics involved aren't always clear to employers and grieving employees who've never encountered the need.

For example, how much bereavement time off can or should an employee be allowed? Who will cover for them while they're gone? And will their job be at risk if they take the time they need?

It's best to be prepared in advance with the answers or solutions to important questions and quandaries. Here we'll cover the basics of bereavement leave for employers, human resources professionals and employees bound to be affected by grief in the workplace at some point. We'll also touch on how to establish effective bereavement policies as part of an official company time-off policy.

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave is a type of time off that employees can take if someone close to them has died. It's common to think primarily in terms of the death of immediate family members. But many people live life with a long-term domestic partner as if they were married. Others may be more attached to a close friend or to extended family than they are to immediate relatives.

The time off gives people the time they need to process emotions and tend to urgent needs.

Generally speaking, businesses are not mandated by federal law to offer bereavement leave. It may be dictated at the state level to some extent, so it's important to check your state laws.

Whether or not it's required, many employers offer some form of leave in recognition of the effects of this loss. For some, bereavement leave is honored as a stand-alone request. For others, it counts as part of a more expansive paid or unpaid time-off or compassionate leave policy. Compassionate leave covers bereavement as well as various family emergencies.

What to include in a bereavement leave policy

Bereavement leave works differently for every company, and the details depend upon the company’s own policy. When it isn't regulated by law, employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement, policy decisions are up to the employer.

For companies that offer bereavement leave, the employee handbook should state a clear policy that contains the following information:

  • How you define bereavement leave.
  • What qualifies an employee as eligible for the benefit.
  • Who qualifies as an immediate relative or covered family member, and perhaps what relationships qualify for what status.
  • Whether bereavement leave will be paid or unpaid.
  • The amount of time off allowed.
  • Whether or not employees must provide documentation of the death.

Who is eligible for bereavement time off?

Loss is a very personal thing not to be defined or "qualified" arbitrarily simply by assumption or association. Still, certain parameters must be set to define eligible employees.

If drawing lines to determine who is and isn't eligible for bereavement leave feels strange or unsettling, you're not alone. Heed these examples of important decisions to help shape your eligibility standards:

  • Will all employees be automatically entitled to bereavement leave when they need it?
  • Will elements of your bereavement leave policy differ between temporary, part-time and full-time employees?
  • Will it be a benefit that kicks in after a certain length of employment, perhaps after an initial probationary period?
  • If documentation requirements are not prohibited, will employees need to provide proof of the death to be eligible for leave?

Is bereavement leave paid or unpaid?

To prevent costly misunderstandings, it's important for bereavement leave policies to establish whether time off will be paid or unpaid leave. For paid bereavement leave, specify the terms that apply and how. For example:

  • Is there a cap on total pay toward bereavement leave?
  • Will the pay be equal to their normal rate?
  • Will paid leave details apply per event, per year or per any other condition?

How many days of bereavement leave should you offer employees?

The answer to this is often subjective and determined by a number of factors. First, consider the following and how different circumstances might impact the organization as well as grieving employees:

  • Are you offering paid or unpaid bereavement leave or a combination? Honoring the company budget is a must. Considering the employee's financial state and the effects of the loss on it would also be nice.
  • Do aspects of eligibility dictate how many partial or full days off different employees can use?

With that established, here's a breakdown of common minimum expectations:

  • For the death of a spouse: up to two weeks.
  • For the death of a child or parent: ranges from up to five days to up to two weeks.
  • For the death of an immediate family member not already mentioned: up to three days.
  • For the death of friends and extended relatives: one day of bereavement leave to attend funeral services or memorial services.

Note that exceptions to this exist. Domestic partners without the benefit of a marriage license should be considered spouses under any bereavement policy. Aunts or other family members may have taken on parental responsibilities for employees and be considered as close a relation as parents themselves. Those grieving the loss of a spouse, child, parent or parents-in-law may have the added burden of making funeral arrangements.

Employers who provide bereavement leave should clearly define covered family members and offer some flexibility for these situations.

Also consider that different religions have different requirements and rituals around death that can involve more than a few days off. And if your employee is legally responsible for the deceased person’s affairs, the time necessary to carry out those duties can extend beyond the norm.

Given the need for flexibility, bereavement policies should also explain what other time-off options employees might have. Can they use paid or unpaid flex time, sick leave or other benefits to cover additional days off if needed?

Should proof be required for bereavement time off?

Whether or not laws require employers to gather documentation for recordkeeping, you can require it as part of your bereavement policy. But it’s important to think through what an acceptable form of "proof" would be. For instance, would it be necessary to demand that a grieving employee produce the death certificate of a spouse or child? What effect might that have on someone who's already profoundly overwhelmed?

If you do require employees to provide documentation, what will you consider reasonable documentation? Will a published obituary or letter of explanation suffice?

Being prepared can help ease the burden

To avoid unnecessary stress for all involved, be fair and as clear as possible about your official bereavement time-off policies.

Remember to explain how and to whom to request bereavement leave. And be sure your business is prepared for the absences of grieving employees. Have a process in place for handing off work to others and the best way to communicate if necessary. For workplace continuity's sake, it's also OK to request that when feasible, employees notify the Human Resources department in advance of the need for leave. This may be possible in such cases as:

  • When a loved one's death is imminent.
  • When a death has already occurred but the time off needed will be delayed for a period.

Finally, regardless of what type of benefits you extend, be sure to treat grief-stricken employees with compassion and in accordance with your policy. How you handle bereavement for one employee will be witnessed by others. Consider how this might impact employee satisfaction, morale and company culture.

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