TN 13 (01-14)
PR 02905.033 New Jersey
A. PR 14-010 Rita - Eligibility for Widow’s Benefits After Conviction of Aggravated Manslaughter of Number Holder Carlo - New Jersey Law
DATE: October 25, 2013
A conviction for aggravated manslaughter under New Jersey law is a felony and an intentional homicide within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. §404.305(b). The claimant’s conviction of the felonious and intentional homicide of the NH makes her ineligible to receive widow’s benefits on his account, and the Social Security Administration may reopen the March 2006 eligibility determination at any time.
You have asked whether Rita’s (Claimant) conviction in New Jersey for the aggravated manslaughter of her husband, Carlo, the number holder (NH), disqualifies her from receiving widow’s benefits on the NH’s account, and if so, whether SSA is permitted to reopen her March 2006 initial determination of eligibility.
Under New Jersey law, a conviction for aggravated manslaughter is a felony and an intentional homicide within the meaning of SSA’s regulations. As a result, Claimant’s conviction for the aggravated manslaughter of the NH makes her ineligible to receive benefits on the NH’s account. Furthermore, SSA is permitted to reopen Claimant’s March 2006 initial determination of eligibility at any time.
Claimant was born Rita on February. She married the NH in Pennsylvania on September 8, 1968.
Claimant shot and killed the NH outside the NH’s home in Haddonfield, NJ. Claimant subsequently pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter and served her sentence in New Jersey state prison from 1992 until 2002.
Claimant filed an application for Social Security widow’s benefits on February 10, 2006. The application form did not ask for, and Claimant did not volunteer, information about how the NH died or whether Claimant had ever been convicted of a felony. The initial decision approving her application for widow’s benefits is dated March 6, 2006.
Claimant is Ineligible for Benefits on the NH’s Account Because She Was Convicted of the Felonious and Intentional Homicide of the NH
a. SSA Regulations and Policy
Generally, the widow of an individual who died a fully insured wage earner is entitled to widow’s insurance benefits if she is not married, has attained age sixty, and files an application. See Social Security Act (Act) § 202(e)(1), 42 U.S.C. § 402(e)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335; Program Operations Manual System (POMS) RS 00207.001(A)(1)(b); see also Act § 216(c), 42 U.S.C. § 416(c) (defining the term “widow”). Here, Claimant satisfies these requirements for entitlement to widow’s insurance benefits on the NH’s earnings record.
However, SSA regulations provide that a claimant may not become entitled to or continue to receive any survivor’s benefits (e.g., widow’s insurance benefits) on the earnings record of a person if the claimant was “convicted of a felony or an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing that person’s death.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b); POMS GN 00304.060(A)(1) (“An adult convicted of the felonious and intentional homicide of another person cannot be entitled to monthly benefits . . . on the earnings record of that person . . . .”).
SSA defines “intent” to mean:
A wish or expectancy that an act will have a certain result (regardless of the actual likelihood of such a result).
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 that he or she plans to commit. This applies whether the individual desires that such consequences occur or is indifferent as to their occurrence.
POMS GN 00304.060(B)(1); see also Social Security Ruling (SSR) 89-6c (1989) (quoting Davis v. HHS, 867 F.2d 336 (6th Cir. 1989)).
SSA defines felonious and intentional homicide as “[c]rimes committed by adults … considered intentional and legally felonious (or acts in the nature of a felony)…. POMS GN 00304.060(B)(2).
b. New Jersey Law
Whether aggravated manslaughter is classified as intentional homicide depends on the laws of the State in which the claimant is convicted. POMS GN 00304.065. Under New Jersey law, an actor commits aggravated manslaughter when “[t]he actor recklessly causes death under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life . . . .” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:11-4(a)(1) (West 2013). A person acts recklessly under New Jersey law when he “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that a particular circumstance “exists or will result from his conduct.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:2-2(b)(2) (West 2013).
Courts have held that a conviction for aggravated manslaughter in New Jersey requires that “the defendant must have caused death with an awareness and conscious disregard of the probability of death.” State v. Jenkins, 840 A.2d 242, 252 (N.J. 2004)); see also State v. Wilder, 939 A.2d 781, 787-88 (N.J. 2008). This requirement parallels the definition of intent given in the POMS, which finds intent “where the individual is fully aware of the nature and probable consequences of the act that he or she plans to commit.” POMS GN 00304.060(B)(1).
Based on the similarities between the definition of aggravated manslaughter in New Jersey and that found in the POMS and SSR 89-6c, we believe that aggravated manslaughter under New Jersey law qualifies as an intentional homicide within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).
We also note that although New Jersey criminal statutes classify offenses by degree rather than as felonies or misdemeanors, see N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:1-4 (West 2013), the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that offenses punishable by more than one year in state prison should be treated as common law felonies. State v. Doyle, 200 A.2d 606, 614 (N.J. 1964); see also Phila. Indem. Ins. Co. v. Healy, 156 F. App’x 472, 476 (3d. Cir. 2005) (“[T]he term ‘felony’ has been defined by New Jersey courts as an offense punishable by more than one year in prison.”). Aggravated manslaughter is classified as a first degree crime and carries a sentence of between ten and thirty years’ imprisonment. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:11-4(c) (West 2013). Therefore, aggravated manslaughter should be considered a felony within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).
Because Claimant was convicted of the felonious and intentional homicide of the NH, she is ineligible to receive widow’s benefits on his account.
SSA Regulations Permit Reopening Claimant’s Eligibility Determination
SSA regulations provide that a determination may be reopened within twelve months of the determination for any reason or within four years if good cause exists. 20 C.F.R. § 404.988(a) and (b). Since the initial determination was made in 2006, more than four years ago, these provisions are inapplicable. However, a determination may also be reopened at any time if that determination “is incorrect because . . . [y]ou were convicted of a crime that affected your right to receive benefits or your entitlement to a period of disability; . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 404.988(c)(11).
In this case, the initial determination that Claimant was eligible for widow’s benefits on the NH’s account was incorrect, because she was convicted of a crime (the aggravated manslaughter of the NH) that made her ineligible for those benefits. Thus, section 404.988(c)(11) applies to this situation and the agency is permitted to reopen Claimant’s determination at any time.
In addition, reopening Claimant’s determination to take into consideration her conviction for intentionally killing the NH aligns with the agency’s stated policy “that an individual should not profit from intentionally causing another person's death.” 47 Fed. Reg. 42098 (Sept. 24, 1982) (describing provisions prohibiting juveniles convicted of intentionally causing the death of a parent from collecting benefits on that parent’s account). See also Clark v. Office of Pers. Mgmt, 256 F.3d 1360, 1365 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (citing Lofton v. West, 198 F.3d 846, 850 (Fed. Cir. 1999) and Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Armstrong, 117 U.S. 591, 600 (1886) for the federal common law principle that a person may not obtain federal or insurance benefits by intentionally killing another); Honeywell Sav. and Ownership Plan v. Jicha, Civ. No. 08–4265 (DRD), 2010 WL 276237, at *6 (D.N.J. Jan. 15, 2010) (citing A~ and holding that federal common law prohibits a husband convicted of intentionally killing his wife from receiving ERISA benefits on her account). We therefore conclude that SSA is permitted to reopen Claimant’s eligibility determination under section 404.988(c)(11).
Under New Jersey law, Claimant’s conviction for the aggravated manslaughter of the NH is a felonious and intentional homicide, and Claimant is therefore ineligible for widow’s benefits on the NH’s account. SSA is permitted to reopen Claimant’s March 2006 eligibility determination at any time.
The Center for Programs Support (CPS) provided this office with a copy of Claimant’s application for widow’s benefits in 2006, excerpts from Claimant’s applications for SSI Disability benefits in 2002 and 2004, an excerpt from an application for child’s benefits filed by the NH’s daughter, Renee, in 1991, and a memorandum summarizing the case. This opinion is based on the facts as presented.
This definition of aggravated manslaughter is significantly similar to the definition of intentional homicide cited by the court in Davis v. HHS and quoted in SSR 89-6c.
The agency added this section to its regulations in response to legislation restricting the use of felony- and prison-related impairments in determining disability under title II of the Social Security Act. 49 Fed. Reg. 46365 (Nov. 26, 1984). However, there is no indication that section 404.988(c)(11) is only applicable in cases involving felony- and prison-related impairments, and the plain meaning of the regulation certainly describes this case.
SSA regulations also permit reopening a determination at any time if SSA has found “that you are entitled to monthly benefits or to a lump sum death payment based on the earnings of a deceased person, and it is later established that: (i) You were convicted of a felony or an act in the nature of a felony for intentionally causing that person’s death . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 404.988(c)(9) (emphasis added); see POMS GN 04020.090 (a final determination or decision may be reopened at any time if it is later established that the claimant was convicted of the felonious and intentional homicide of the deceased number holder). The agency’s explanation at the time this provision was promulgated makes clear that the term “later established” refers to a subsequent conviction, since the regulation was intended to apply “where a claimant has been determined entitled to benefits, but subsequently is finally convicted of the felonious and intentional homicide of the wage earner . . . .” 36 Fed. Reg. 6420 (Apr. 3, 1971). Since Claimant was convicted of the aggravated manslaughter of the NH before the agency (incorrectly) determined that she was eligible for widow’s benefits, section 404.988(c)(9) does not apply to this case.