Time off for Dependants

By Kathryn Adderley
11 Oct 2022

Emergencies happen. When they do, your employees might need to take time off. As an employer, you’ll need to know how to manage time off for dependants. If you don’t, productivity can suffer, and you can damage the relationship you have with employees.

When an incident occurs, it’s almost always a sensitive issue. So, it’s good practice to understand how to handle the situation sensitively as an employer.

If you need immediate advice with this critical issue, speak to one of our HR team today on 01455 858 132. This advice applies to employers only. If you are not an employer, please seek advice from Acas.

What is time off for dependants?

It refers to employees having time off work to deal with unforeseen circumstances and emergencies involving dependants. It’s sometimes known as compassionate leave, although that term usually refers to the death of a loved one. It is an employee right to take this time off. It is your duty as an employer to ensure staff take leave if they request time off.

This right came into force on 15th December 1999.

Of course, there are rules about why an employee can take this time off and for how long. We’ll look at what defines “reasonable time” off later in the article.

Compassionate leave v time off for dependants

There is some confusion between these two terms, as they are often used interchangeably by many employers. Typically, compassionate leave refers to when a dependant dies or is severely injured. This leave occurs when the employee needs time to grieve or work through the emotional consequences of the incident.

Time off for dependants covers emergencies where care arrangements need to be made or changed. Employees should take this time off to deal with the issue only.

Children Playing in Classroom


Who is a dependant?

A dependant is anyone who depends on the employee for care. This includes:

  • Children
  • Siblings
  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • A spouse or civil partner
  • An elderly neighbour

An important distinction is that a dependant doesn’t have to be related to the employee. They don’t have to live in the same household either. So long as they rely on the staff member for care, an employee must have time off to deal with any unexpected disruption to their long term care arrangements.

Reasons for time off

There are lots of reasons an employee might want time off work to take care off a dependant. For the time off to be legitimate, there has to be an unexpected event involving a dependant.

Here are some of the most common examples:

  • A dependant falls ill or has been injured
  • A dependant gives birth
  • An adjustment or arrangement of care when a dependant falls ill or is injured
  • A dependant dies
  • Existing arrangements for the care of a dependant are unexpectedly disrupted
  • The employee’s child is involved in a school incident

While the reason for time off is crucial, the employee doesn’t have to provide specific details of the issue, or evidence that the incident occurred.

Your employees’ rights

Do all staff members have a right to time off for dependants? Yes. Every member of your team, regardless of their employment contract type, has the right to this type of leave.

This is outlined in the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Employment law dictates employees can have a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off to deal with the unforeseen circumstances.

Time off for dependants is a statutory right so an employer cannot deny requests. However, both the employer and the employee should be aware of notification duties.

Employees must notify their employer of their absence and the reason for it as soon as is reasonably practicable. They should make sure to keep their employer informed of how long they expect to be off work. However, they don’t need to provide evidence of why they are taking leave.

Employees don’t have a legal right to be paid for their time off for dependants.

Employers’ rights

As for the employer, the main obligation you have is to accept requests for compassionate leave when they are presented. An employer should also be aware of who is classed as a dependant and what would qualify as a family emergency.

Dismissal due to an employee taking time off to care for a dependant will be automatically unfair. So long as they have followed the correct process, you cannot discipline an employee for taking this type of absence. If the absence becomes too long, you can consider disciplinary action, but even then an employer must follow the correct process.

If an employee is refused reasonable time off they may pursue a route of constructive dismissal due to being treated unfairly. This could result in significant fines, reputational damage, and damage to company morale.

Unpaid time off for dependants

Legally, an employer doesn’t have to pay employees for this type of leave, but may do so. If you do, outline this in the employment contract or company handbook.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes. Mainly when the employee knew about a situation beforehand, after all, the whole point is that it has to be unexpected incident.

Parental leave

Staff members don’t have the right to time off work for family members or dependants if, for example, they’re attending a pre-booked hospital appointment.

In these circumstances, the employee may have the right to parental leave instead.

Compassionate leave

For any extended emergency involving dependants, you may grant them ‘compassionate leave’ instead. This can also be with or without pay, depending on the employer’s policy.

Industry exclusions

While all employees have the right to time of for dependants, there are three classes of employee that are excluded from this right. These are individuals employed in:

  • The armed forces
  • Share fishing
  • The police service

That means, unless you are an employer working in one of these industries, you must give employees time off for dependants.

What is reasonable time off?

We’ve mentioned reasonable time off throughout this article, but haven’t yet defined what is a reasonable amount of time.

Legally, there is no minimum period of time employees can have off to deal with an emergency situations. It largely depends on the individual circumstances relating to the time off. Don’t make the mistake of measuring whether the time off is reasonable based on business disruption. If you want specific factors to take into account, here are the points to consider:

  • What is the nature of the incident?
  • How close are the dependant and the employee?
  • Is there availability for others to help or look after the dependant?
  • How many absences have already occurred due to care for a particular dependant?

Remember, the time off is to deal with the immediate crisis, not provide ongoing care. It’s okay to take time off to organise care arrangements, but if their absence continues, it could become unreasonable. If the employee takes a week’s time to deal with an incident, for example, you would be right to raise concerns.

Refusing to provide additional time off won’t be considered automatically unfair, but should still be approached with caution. It is usually better to offer a different solution, such as flexible working, or transition to parental leave in the case of a pregnancy.

Time off for death of a dependant

Where the time is off because of the death of a dependant, the time to make funeral arrangements and attending the funeral are considered reasonable. However, time off to grieve would more likely be classified as compassionate leave.

While it is good practice to provide some form of compassionate leave following the death of a dependant, it’s not a legal requirement.

Does time off for dependants count as annual leave?

No. An employer shouldn’t take time off work for dependants from an employee’s annual leave entitlement. If an employee takes longer than is reasonable to deal with an issue, you should ask them to attend a meeting to discuss options. If further time off is required, an employee could take this as paid holiday, unpaid leave, or try a flexible working arrangement.

Examples of when time off for dependants is used

In this section, we’ll take a look at when time off for dependants applies, and how to handle specific instances of this type of leave. We’ll analyse how long they should take off work and how you can provide assistance.

Let’s start with:

An employee’s child falls ill

The staff member can take time off straight away if their child falls in. Ideally they would let their employer know the reason for their absence before they take time off, but in cases of sudden, serious illness, this may not be possible. In these circumstances, they should let you know the reason for the absence as soon as reasonably possible. They should also give their employer an estimated time frame for when they’ll be back to work.

The length of the time the employee can have off to deal with this circumstance will vary depending on the severity of the dependant’s illness, and their access to care. For some, an afternoon off is all that is needed to find someone to look after their dependant. For others, it might prove more difficult, and take two or three days. An example of this is when a childminder fails to be available, and there are no family members to step in.

If the employee has already taken several days off, and isn’t showing any indication of returning soon, an employer could offer an alternative arrangement. For example, you could allow them to work from home until the child is feeling better, or ask them to take the time off as holiday instead.

An employer doesn’t have to pay employees for time off to take care of a sick child unless your policies state otherwise.

When the employee comes back to work, conduct a return to work meeting to ensure a seamless transition.

An employee’s wife gives birth

If a staff member’s wife goes into labour, they will want to be by her side as quickly as possible. Depending on circumstances however, this may class as paternity leave.

It will be classed as time off for dependants if the pregnant employee is the employee’s dependant and relies on them to take them to the hospital. This means the relationship doesn’t have to be husband or wife. An employee could get time off to take a child to the hospital, or even a neighbour.

Following the birth of the child, the employee cannot take time off unless it’s an emergency. If the staff member is one of the parents, then this would become parental leave.

An employee needs to make alternative arrangements related to the care of an elderly relative

If a staff member has elderly relatives who needs care, they may occasionally need to take time off to find alternative arrangements. If the arrangements need to be changed due to life threatening illness or a serious accident, the employee may need to take time off quite with short notice. If this is the case, they should inform their employer of their reason for absence as soon as reasonably possible.

Usually, a day or two would be enough to make care arrangements with other family members. Seven days or more, on the other hand, is unlikely to be acceptable. Remember to check in with the employee. This will give you a clear picture of where everything stands, and also when you can expect the employee to come back.

The same process would apply if they were taking care of an elderly neighbour living close by.

If the employee needs more time off than a few days, an employer could consider alternative options, such a flexible working, or part-time work. If this isn’t an option for you, speak to one of our HR advisors to find out how to best handle this situation on 01455 858 132.

An employee’s child has been involved in a school incident

If the staff member has to deal with an unexpected incident involving their child at school, they may need to leave quite suddenly. As school hours overlap with a typical working day, it’s likely the employee may need to leave in the middle of their shift/regular working hours. If this is the case, they should inform their employer of their reason for a sudden absence as soon as reasonably possible.

The circumstances behind this time off will determine how much time off they should take. If the individual’s child got into a fight, for example, they may need an afternoon to deal with the matter. If the child has been suspended from school, then the employee may need time to make care arrangements. In this circumstance, they might need a day or two to organise this.

They may take time off to attend meetings and discussions with the child’s school following the incident. If they need further time off, you could tell them to take paid holiday instead of time off for dependants.

Time off for dependants in an employment contract

Time off for dependants is a day one legal right for employees. This doesn’t mean an employer shouldn’t mention it in their contracts or company handbook—Especially if you offer additional benefits.

For example, if employees are paid when they take compassionate leave, you should mention this in your contracts with details of how much pay they should expect. As an employer, you can also outline what you expect when it comes to ‘reasonable’ time off. 

Having your policies written and accessible will help avoid confusion when time off for dependants needs to be taken. This will make the whole process simpler and reduce stress during an already stressful time.

Managing time off work when dealing with dependants

Unpaid time off for dependants is a day one right all employees have. They can take time off for a number of different circumstances.

To ensure you manage time off correctly, you need to take into consideration each employee’s circumstances. Also, be sure to assess each situation and not take a blanket approach. This is especially true in cases of compassionate leave, when a dependant dies.

It may be tempting to take a common sense approach, but sensitive issues such as they can become complicated quickly if not handled correctly. If you have any further questions around time off for dependants or other kinds of leave, receive advice from a Croner expert on 01455858132.

About the Author

Kathryn Adderley

Kathryn Adderley is Croner's Senior Content Executive, responsible for producing, sourcing, and organising content across the website. She has a background of working agency side as a copywriter in the marketing industry and is also responsible for Croner's social media channels, so keep your eyes peeled for fresh content!

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