This is with reference to your memorandum inquiring whether Wynona P~, who pleaded
guilty to manslaughter in the death of her spouse, is eligible on the earnings record
of the deceased wage earner for the lump-sum death payment. SSA's regulations prohibit
awarding widow's benefits to a person convicted of feloniously and intentionally killing
a wage earner. According to the POMS provisions, involuntary manslaughter creates
a rebuttable presumption of lack of intent. Voluntary manslaughter carries no presumption
and therefore requires a development of the facts surrounding the homicide to establish
intent or lack thereof. The Michigan penal code does not differentiate between voluntary
and involuntary manslaughter, and courts are not required to differentiate between
voluntary and involuntary manslaughter when convicting an individual of manslaughter.
In cases, like this one, where the conviction does not specify whether the manslaughter
was voluntary or involuntary, SSA must develop the facts of the case to determine
whether the claimant had the requisite intent that would prohibit an award of benefits.
Frank P~ died on September 22, 1989 from facial gunshot wounds. Wynona P~ admits that
she shot Frank, but denies that she intended to kill him. She alleges that she merely
wanted to frighten him by shooting above his head.
Frank and Wynona married on May 7, 1987 after almost a year of living together. This
year of courtship and cohabitation witnessed no violent episodes between the two,
but Wynona states that almost immediately after they were married Frank initiated
a pattern of violent and abusive behavior towards her.
The abuse started with a slap, but by September 1987 when Wynona was in her third
trimester of pregnancy, Frank tripped her, causing a foot injury. A few days after
she had given birth by cesarean section, Frank hit her in the stomach which caused
bleeding. A couple of months later, Frank broke Wynona's left arm when striking her
arm with a board.
Frank engaged in psychological abuse as well. He told Wynona that he had stabbed his
former wife six times during a violent affair which resulted only in a six-month jail
sentence for him. When she planned to leave and visit her family in Oklahoma City,
he threatened to kill her and the children if she attempted the trip.
The physical abuse continued. After Wynona had returned from the Interim House, a
shelter for abused women, Frank again subjected her to the cycle of abuse and threats.
He hit her in the chest with an axe and broke her right arm with a baseball bat. Though
Wynona was pregnant with their second child, Frank seemingly intensified his abuse.
In her fourth month of pregnancy, he kicked her in the stomach and beat her about
the face, causing severe injuries that required Wynona's hospitalization. On subsequent
occasions Frank battered Wynona with a brick, repeatedly struck her over the head
with an iron pot, and beat her with a stick and a crate.
The day of the fatal shooting was not much different from previous ones. Frank and
Wynona were both drinking and began to argue with one another. Frank complained about
the amount of money that Wynona spent. This argument ended momentarily, and the two
then joked and watched television. Frank, however, returned to the earlier argument's
topic although Wynona implored him to stop talking about it. Instead, he picked up
a two-by-four and struck her across the back. At that point, Wynona retrieved a gun
from the bedroom, returned and shot Frank in the face. She then went to a neighbor's
home and called the police, explaining that she had shot her husband.
Wynona claimed that she did not intend to kill Frank but instead wanted to "scare
him and shoot over his head." She states that the gun accidentally discharged before
she had the barrel pointed above his head.
She was charged with first degree murder and possession of a weapon. After a preliminary
hearing, she was bound over on both charges. Instead of facing the prospects of trial,
Wynona agreed to a plea bargain in which she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and the
felony weapon charge. She was sentenced to one to fifteen years.
Part 404.305 of Subpart D of Title 20 of SSA's regulations provides as follows:
(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 to a person, if you were convicted of
a felony or an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing that person's
20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).
The POMS states that "[a]n adult convicted of the felonious and intentional homicide
of another person cannot be entitled to monthly benefits or the LSDP on the earnings
record of that person or receive any underpayment due the deceased person." POMS GN 00304.060(A)(1)(a). The POMS provisions create a rebuttable presumption of lack of intent in
involuntary manslaughter cases, and they establish no presumption in voluntary manslaughter
convictions. POMS GN 00305.065(B). If the State law does not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter,
SSA follows the steps for evaluating a case involving voluntary manslaughter (i.e.,
no presumption applies). Id. Certain cases are excluded from intentional homicide: those that were the result of
an accident; those that were the result of self defense; or those where the claimant
was insane or under the influence of drugs or alcohol to the extent that she was unaware
of the consequences of the act when she killed the number holder. POMS GN 00304.065(A).
The Michigan penal code does not define manslaughter or differentiate between voluntary
or involuntary manslaughter. See Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 750.321 (West 2011). Michigan has adopted common law definitions
of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, and in some cases, the distinction is made
in the conviction. See, e.g., Nale v. Ford Motor Co., 703 F. Supp. 2d 714 (E.D. Mich. 2010) (conviction of voluntary manslaughter supported
finding that the convicted claimant could not collect survivor’s benefits under ERISA);
People v. Thinel, 417 N.W.2d 585 (Mich. App. 1987) (defendant convicted of involuntary manslaughter);
People v. Allan, 404 N.W.2d 266 (Mich. App. 1987) (same). The Supreme Court of Michigan has explained
Involuntary manslaughter is the killing of another without malice and unintentionally,
but in doing some unlawful act not amounting to a felony nor naturally tending to
cause death or great bodily harm, or in negligently doing some act lawful in itself,
or by the negligent omission to perform a legal duty.
People v. Townes, 218 N.W.2d 136, 141 (1974) (quoting People v. Ryczek, 194 N.W. 609, 611 (1923)). The court has explained that voluntary manslaughter involves
“intent to kill or an intent to do serious bodily harm,” but does not involve malice.
Id. at 140. Rather, “[a] defendant properly convicted of voluntary manslaughter is a person
who has acted out of a temporary excitement induced by an adequate provocation and
not from the deliberation and reflection that marks the crime of murder.” Id. at 141.
However, not all courts make the distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.
Wynona's case was one of those that did not specify whether the conviction was for
voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. In cases where the state court does not distinguish
between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, SSA must make its own determination
of intent, without any presumptions as to whether or not there was intent to kill.
POMS GN 00305.065(B).