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
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
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.