You requested our opinion on whether a 1990 conviction for manslaughter constitutes
a felonious and intentional homicide under Arkansas law so as to preclude entitlement
to widow's benefits on a number holder's account. We conclude that it does.
The facts, as presented to us, show that Brenda B~ (Brenda) shot and killed her husband,
Billy G. P~ (number holder) on September 17, 1989. Brenda was charged with first degree
murder. At trial, Brenda claimed the shooting was accidental. On August 16, 1990,
an Arkansas jury found Brenda guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. On September
17, 1990, the Circuit Court of Mississippi County, Arkansas, entered judgment against
Brenda for manslaughter and sentenced her to three years imprisonment.
Brenda filed an application for widow's benefits on the number holder's account. When
determining who is a wife, husband, widow, or widower for purposes of entitlement
to Social Security benefits, the Social Security Administration will look to the laws
of the state where the deceased number holder had a permanent home at the time of
her or his death. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Because the number holder died while domiciled
in Arkansas, we look to Arkansas law.
A widow is generally entitled to survivor's benefits under the Agency's statutory
scheme. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1). Agency regulations, however, provide that an individual is
not entitled to benefits on the earnings record of a number holder if he or she was
convicted of a felony, or an act in the nature of a felony, of intentionally causing
the number holder's death. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b). The Agency's policy regarding the definition of intent is
not limited to engaging in conduct with the purpose of causing the death of another.
It also encompasses a wish or an expectancy that an act will have a certain result
or the presence of will where the individual committing the act is fully aware of
the nature and probable consequences of the act she is about to do. See Social Security Ruling 89-6c (citing Program Operations Manual System GN 00304.115). The Agency considers intent as a state of mind, which is seldom established by
direct proof but must be inferred from facts. See id. A conviction for the indifferent performance of a voluntary act 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. See id. Because a conviction of a felony for intentionally causing a spouse's death disqualifies
the convicted from survivor's benefits, the issue is (1) whether Brenda's conviction
for manslaughter constituted a felony and (2) whether Brenda intentionally caused
her husband's death under Arkansas law. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b)
In 1990, under Arkansas law, a conviction for manslaughter was a Class C felony. See Ark. Stat. Ann. § 5-10-104(c) (1990). Therefore, Brenda's conviction met the first
requirement to disqualify her from survivor's benefits.
The next question is whether Brenda's Arkansas conviction reveals she intentionally
caused her husband's death. In 1990, there were three kinds of murder under Arkansas
law. First, a person commits capital murder if, with premeditation and deliberated
purpose, she causes the death of another person. See Ark. Stat. Ann. § 5-10-101(a)(4) (1990). Second, a person commits murder in the first
degree, inter alia, when she purposefully causes the death of another person. See Ark. Stat. Ann. § 5-10-102(a)(2) (1990). Third, a person commits murder in the second
degree when she knowingly causes the death of another person under circumstances manifesting
extreme indifference to the value of human life. See Ark. Stat. Ann. § 5-10-103(a)(1) (1990). A lesser offense than homicide is manslaughter,
which occurs when a person causes the death of another human being: (1) "under circumstances
that would be murder, except that [s]he causes the death under the influence of extreme
emotional disturbance for which there is reasonable excuse;" or (2) "recklessly causes
the death of another person." See Ark. Stat. Ann. § 5-10-104(a)(1), (3) (1990). In this case, we do not know which
type of manslaughter Brenda was convicted of. Accordingly, we consider whether both
types of manslaughter indicate an intent to cause death.
With regard to "extreme emotional" circumstances manslaughter under Ark. Stat. Ann.
§ 5-10-104(a)(1), a person has committed what would otherwise be considered murder
but the offense is mitigated by extreme emotional disturbances. Nevertheless, the
person still intends to commit murder. All three types of murder manifest an intent
to cause someone's death. See Ark. Stat. Ann. §§ 5-10-101, 5-10-102, 5-10-103 (1990). Therefore, we believe that
a conviction for "extreme emotional" circumstances manslaughter disqualifies an individual
from receiving survivor's benefits.
With regard to "reckless" manslaughter under Ark. Stat. Ann. § 5-10-104(a)(3), we
found no authority directly on point stating whether such a conviction manifests intent
to cause death. However, under Arkansas law, "a presumption exists that a person intends
the natural and probable consequences of his acts." W~ v. State, 896 S.W.2d 874, 877 (Ark. 1995). Moreover, generally-held principles of law define
The state of mind required for the commission of certain common-law crimes not requiring
a specific intent . . . General intent . . . [may take] the form of recklessness (involving
actual awareness of a risk and the culpable taking of that risk).
Black's Law Dictionary, 813 (7th ed 1999). Thus, we believe that a conviction for "reckless" manslaughter
evidences an intent to cause someone's death.
In conclusion, because Brenda's 1990 conviction for manslaughter constitutes a felony
of intentionally causing the number holder's death under Arkansas law, she is not
entitled to benefits on the number holder's account.
Tina M. W~
Regional Chief Counsel
Assistant Regional Counsel