TN 2 (07-05)
PR 02905.045 South Carolina
A. PR 08- 151 Impact of Civil Finding of Conspiracy to Kill Wage Earner on Claimant's Eligibility for Widow's Benefits
DATE: July 14, 2008
The issue involved in this decision is entitlement to widow's benefits after the claimant was found guilty in a civil action of intentionally causing or conspiring to cause the NH's death.
You asked whether the claimant, the widow of the number holder, may collect widow's benefits, when a state court in a civil proceeding adjudicated her guilty of conspiracy to kill the number holder.
No. The relevant regulation requires a "conviction" of a felony or an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing the wage earner's death. Claimant was not convicted in a criminal proceeding, but rather found guilty in a civil action; that is, she lost the action based on a civil statute governing inheritance rights and was not convicted of felonious killing. However, the published explanatory language for the regulation makes clear the policy of the Social Security Administration (SSA) is that a survivor who intentionally causes the death of the wage earner may not collect payments on that wage earner's record. Therefore, we believe the civil finding should have the force of a conviction. Furthermore, the state court explicitly stated the claimant's actions were a criminal as well as civil violation.
Edie P~ (Claimant) filed for widow's benefits on the wage record of her husband, Randal P~, the number holder (NH). Claimant's son, Matthew B~, was convicted of NH's murder. Other family members filed a civil action against Claimant to have her barred from inheriting from NH's estate. A jury found that Claimant had conspired with her son to feloniously and intentionally kill NH. Based on the finding of conspiracy, the trial court ruled South Carolina inheritance law prevented her from inheriting from NH. Claimant appealed, arguing the trial court had erroneously applied the criminal rather than civil elements of conspiracy in the jury instructions. The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict, stating that, although Claimant was sued upon a civil statute governing inheritance rights, her actions were criminal in nature.
Generally, the widow of a fully insured wage earner may collect survivor's benefits on his wage record. See Social Security Act (Act) § 202(e)(1), 42 U.S.C. § 402(e)(1). However, SSA regulations limit this right as follows:
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.
20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b) (2008). On its face, the regulation appears to require a "conviction," presumably in a criminal proceeding. However, giving "conviction" a literal meaning brings the regulation into conflict with SSA policy:
This policy prohibits benefit payments to any survivor who is found to have intentionally caused the death of the worker on whose earnings record the benefit payments are based. It . . . is consistent with the well-established principle that an individual should not profit directly from intentionally causing another person's death.
47 Fed. Reg. 42,097, 42,097 (Sept. 24, 1982); see also 52 Fed. Reg. 19,135, 19,135 (May 21, 1987) (expanding § 404.305(b) to prohibit an individual from receiving any underpayment due a person whom the individual killed so the regulation was "consistent with the well-established principle that an individual should not profit directly from intentionally causing another person's death.").
There is no mention in these policies of an absolute need for a conviction in a criminal proceeding, and requiring a criminal conviction would result in payments in some cases, such as the present case, to an individual who is found to have intentionally caused the death of the worker on whose earnings record the benefit payments are based. Thus, giving a civil finding of criminal homicide the force of a conviction is consistent with SSA policy; not giving such a civil finding the force of a conviction would directly contradict SSA policy.
The Agency previously dealt with a similar problem in juvenile cases, and revised the regulation by adding the following:
If you were subject to the juvenile justice system, you may not become entitled to or continue to receive survivor's benefits or payments on the earnings record of any person, or receive any underpayment due a person, if you were found by a court of competent jurisdiction to have intentionally caused that person's death by committing an act which, if committed by an adult, would have been considered a felony or an act in the nature of a felony.
20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b) (2008). When SSA made this change, the Agency explained that SSA's policy was to prevent the lack of a conviction from barring implementation of the general policy:
These regulations reflect a change in SSA policy that a child who is found to have intentionally caused the death of a parent or spouse may not collect Social Security benefits based on that person's earnings. Prior policy denied survivor's payments only to persons finally convicted of a felony for intentionally causing a worker's death. In most jurisdictions, no conviction of a felony is possible for individuals who are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court system. On that basis, the Social Security Administration has paid benefits to children in this category who otherwise qualified for benefit payments.
47 Fed. Reg. at 42,097-98. Furthermore, although the regulation retains "conviction" in the adult provision, SSA announced its intention to equalize, not distinguish, the standards for adults and juveniles: "It [the new policy] provides for uniform treatment of juveniles and adults in these homicide cases . . . ." Id. at 42,097.
Interpreting the regulation to require a conviction in a criminal proceeding would thus be contrary to SSA's stated policy in two ways. First, as noted above, requiring a conviction would, in cases such as the present one, allow payment to an individual who is found to have intentionally caused the death of the worker on whose earnings record the benefit payments are based. Second, such an interpretation would contradict "uniform treatment of juveniles and adults in these homicide cases," by providing that an adult would need a "conviction," but a juvenile would not. Therefore, we believe that a finding in a civil proceeding that a claimant intentionally caused the death of the number holder should have the force of a conviction for purposes of SSA's regulation.
Conspiracy to cause a person's death falls within the regulatory prohibition on receipt of benefits. First, the regulation itself includes "an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing that person's death." 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b). Second, South Carolina law treats conspiracy to commit homicide as equivalent to homicide for purposes of determining entitlements resulting from a spouse's death. See Pinion ex. rel. Montague v. Pinion, 611 S.E.2d 271, 272 (S.C. Ct. App. 2005) (citing S.C. CODE ANN. § 62-2-803 (1987); Wilson v. Wilson, 319 S.C. 370, 372-73, 461 S.E.2d 816, 817 (S.C. 1995)).
The regulation does not direct that conviction should be defined according to state law. However, our P~ is consistent with South Carolina law. In P~, the Court explicitly found that Claimant's actions were a criminal violation, and not just a civil wrong: "Section 62-2-803, although not itself a criminal statute, applies only to situations where the deceased was intentionally and feloniously killed, which is a crime. Thus, it follows any conspiracy triggering this statute would also be criminal, rather than civil." The issue was relevant to Claimant's case, because civil conspiracy requires an overt act, whereas criminal conspiracy does not, with the agreement itself constituting the crime. See P~, at 272 (citing Future Group, II v. Nationsbank, 478 S.E.2d 45, 50-51 (1996)). The court then analyzed Claimant's actions under the criminal standard, even though the proceeding itself was a civil suit. Thus, the court gave Claimant's actions the force of a criminal, rather than civil, violation of law.
Given such rules and policies, we believe that because the court found Claimant intentionally caused, or conspired to cause, NH's death, the court's findings should be given the force of a "conviction" for purposes of applying 20 C.F.R. 404.305(b).
For these reasons, we believe Claimant is not entitled to benefits on NH's wage record.
Mary A. S~
Assistant Regional Counsel
B. PR 05-192 Claim for Survivor's Insurance Benefits on Account of Wage Earner when Claimant was convicted under South Carolina law of voluntary manslaughter.
DATE: June 30, 2005
Under South Carolina law, a claimant convicted of "voluntary manslaughter" in the death of the wage earner has committed a felony and intentionally caused the wage earner's death. A claimant with such a conviction cannot, therefore, become entitled to or continue to receive any survivor's benefits or payments on the earnings record of the deceased wage earner, or receive any underpayment due a deceased wage earner under the applicable regulation in 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b) (2004); also see POMS GN 00304.060. .
You asked whether Claimant, Brenda B~ is entitled to survivor's insurance benefits as the surviving spouse of Danny B~ (wage earner), despite her conviction in the state of South Carolina for voluntary manslaughter in connection with his death in May 1981.
Claimant is not entitled to benefits based on the account of the wage earner due to her conviction of a felony for intentionally causing the death of the wage earner under South Carolina law.
Claimant shot and killed the wage earner on May 21, 1981. She filed for benefits later that same month. On November 12, 1981, Claimant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to three years of probation with a suspended sentence of eight years in prison. After Claimant completed two years of her probationary period without any significant problems, she was discharged from probation on December 27, 1983.
Under the applicable regulation, a claimant "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 . . .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) (2004); see POMS GN 00304.060. Under South Carolina law, the offense of voluntary manslaughter is defined as a "Class A Felony." S.C. Code Ann. § 16-1-90. Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional crime. South Carolina law defines manslaughter as "the unlawful killing of another without malice, express or implied." S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-50. The courts have defined "voluntary manslaughter" as the unlawful killing of a human being in sudden heat of passion upon sufficient legal provocation. See State v. Knoten, 555 S.E.2d 391, 394-95 (S.C. 2001). The sudden heat of passion that mitigates a felonious killing to manslaughter need not dethrone reason entirely, but must be such as would naturally disturb the sway of reason, render the mind of an ordinary person incapable of cool reflection, and produce what, according to human experience, may be called an uncontrollable impulse to do violence. Id. In State v. Blassingame, 244 S.E.2d 528 (1978), the Supreme Court of South Carolina held that voluntary manslaughter "is an offense which does involve intent on the part of the perpetrator but lacks the element of malice." Id. at 529. Involuntary manslaughter, however, is defined as the unintentional killing of another without malice while engaged in an unlawful activity that is not a felony and does not naturally tend to cause death or great bodily harm. See State v. Light, 610 S.E.2d 504, 507 (S.C. Ct. App. 2005) (citing Bozeman v. State, 414 S.E.2d 144, 146-47 (S.C. 1992)).
The claimant was convicted of a felony for intentionally causing the death of the wage earner under South Carolina law. Therefore, she is not entitled to any Social Security benefits deriving from this wage earner's account.
Mary A. S~
Assistant Regional Counsel