PR 02905.011 Florida
A. PR 00-208 In Re: Donald E. S~, ~
DATE: August 6, 1998
The case involves the question of whether an individual convicted of "manslaughter by culpable negligence" in the state of Florida should have been precluded from receiving monthly benefits on the deceased number holder's earnings record under 20 C.F.R. 404.305(b). It is the opinion of the RCC that the facts of the case presented support a finding that the individual was convicted of an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing his wife's death, and thus, should have been precluded from receiving benefits off of her earnings record.
Legal Opinion: The facts of this case show that Donald E. S~ was convicted of an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing the death of his wife, Elizabeth S~, and therefore should have been precluded from receiving widower's benefits on her account.
You asked our legal opinion as to whether Donald E. S~ intentionally caused the death of his wife and therefore should have been precluded from receiving widower's benefits on her account. You have presented us evidence that on September 10, 1979, Donald E. S~ was convicted for the crime of "manslaughter by culpable negligence" in a Florida state court after confessing to killing his wife, Elizabeth M. S~. Donald S~ collected widower's benefits on his deceased wife's account from September, 1984, through November, 1996, when he started collecting retirement benefits on his own account. The file relevant to Donald S~'s application for Widower's Benefits apparently has been destroyed and there is no record as to whether this issue was developed when he applied for widower's benefits.
It is a well established principle that an individual should not benefit from intentionally causing another's death. The Commissioner's position on this issue is implemented at 20 C.F.R. ' 404.305(b), which, in relevant part, reads:
(b) Person's death caused by an intentional act.
You may not become entitled to or continue to receive any survivor's benefits or payments on the earnings record of any person, or receive any underpayment due a person, if you were convicted of a felony or an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing that person's death.
The regulation does not limit its application to "specific intent" felony convictions such as premeditated murder. The meaning of "intentional" for the purposes of applying 20 C.F.R. ' 404.305(b) is construed in the POMS at GN 00304.060 The POMS defines intent to mean:
a. A wish or an expectancy that an act will have a certain result (regardless of the actual likelihood of such a result).
b. The presence of will in the commission of a criminal act where the individual is fully aware of the nature and probable consequences of the act which is to be done. This applies whether the individual desires that such consequences occur or is indifferent as to their occurrence.
c. Intent is seldom established by direct proof but must be inferred from facts.
Thus, applying the Commissioner's guidelines, a conviction for the indifferent performance of a voluntary act that the actor knows is potentially fatal to another, even if the death of the other is not specifically intended, disqualifies the actor from eligibility for survivor's insurance benefits.
When the convicting state's law does not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, there is no presumption of whether or not the slaying was intentional. POMS GN 00304.065. SSA must develop the facts relative to the slaying and determine whether or not the killing was "intentional." Id. Florida law does not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Instead, Florida defines manslaughter as:
The killing of a human being by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another, without lawful justification according to the provisions of chapter 776 and in cases in which such killing shall not be excusable homicide or murder, according to the provisions of this chapter, is manslaughter, a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in ' 775.082, ' 775.083, or ' 775.084.
Fl. St. ' 782.07
"Culpable negligence," as an element of manslaughter, occurs when the killer recklessly or wantonly disregards the safety of another and, therefore, fulfills the Commissioner's definition of "intentional." Florida law has long defined the "culpable negligence" element of a manslaughter conviction as reckless indifference to rights of others that is equivalent to an intentional violation. Florida courts have continued to define culpable negligence as such wantonness or recklessness or grossly careless disregard of the safety and welfare of the public, or that reckless indifference to the rights of others, which is equivalent to an intentional violation of them.
The facts of the case you have presented to us would support a finding that Donald S~ was convicted of an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing his wife's death. The facts are that on January 1, 1979, the body of Elizabeth S~ was found in a secluded area near Vero Beach, Florida. Ms. S~'s body was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, and covered by a cloth laundry bag. Her body was wrapped in two plastic trash bags and bound from her neck to her feet. An autopsy showed Ms. S~ had been strangled with a pair of pantyhose.
The police interviewed Donald S~ on January 1st, when he told them he had not seen his wife since the preceding evening but had not reported her missing. Donald S~ repeatedly told investigators he had searched for his wife in the Orlando area, but suggested the police look at the airport. On January 2nd, police found Ms. S~'s car at the airport. Police searched the S~ home and found her car keys, wallet, driver's license, and credit cards. Investigators also found large plastic trash bags in the garage that were similar trash bags found in the trunk of Ms. S~'s car. There was blood on the floor in the home's Florida room, leading into the garage, and in the garage.
Donald S~ took a polygraph test on January 3rd. The polygraph operator concluded that Donald S~ was being deceptive in response to vital questions. The polygraph operator was "sure" Donald S~ was involved in Ms. S~'s death.
On January 16, 1979, Donald S~ confessed to the murder of Elizabeth S~. Donald S~ stated that he slapped his wife in the throat after she continued to "nag" him. After striking her, Donald S~ wrapped pantyhose around her neck, tied her in rope, placed her in bags, and dumped her body in Vero Beach. Donald S~ then drove Ms. S~'s vehicle to the Orlando airport and hitchhiked home to make it appear as though she was murdered by someone else. Donald S~ was charged with second degree murder for strangling and suffocating his wife and ultimately pled guilty to manslaughter by culpable negligence. Donald S~ was sentenced to five years in prison and ten years on probation. It is our legal opinion that the facts of this case would support a finding that Donald S~ should have been precluded from receiving widower's benefits on his wife's account.