You have asked whether the claimant is precluded from entitlement to widow’s insurance
benefits on the number holder’s earnings record where she pled guilty to voluntary
manslaughter in the death of the number holder, but now alleges she acted in self
We conclude the claimant’s guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in the number holder’s
death constitutes a conviction for an intentional homicide under North Carolina law
and establishes she did not act in self defense. Therefore, the claimant is cannot
be entitled to widow’s insurance benefits on the number holder’s earnings record.
Based on the information provided, we understand the facts to be as follows. P~ (Claimant)
married Ricky , the number holder (NH), in Alabama in 1973. On July 21, 1996, NH died
while domiciled in North Carolina. NH’s death certificate listed the cause of death
as exsanguination and a stab wound to the chest and characterized the manner of death
as homicide. NH’s death certificate also lists Claimant as his wife.
Prosecutors initially charged Claimant with first-degree murder in connection with
NH’s death. On February 13, 1997, however, the North Carolina Superior Court accepted
Claimant’s plea of guilty to voluntary manslaughter. The court issued a suspended
sentence of thirty months, although it ordered Claimant to serve four months in prison
as a condition of the suspended sentence. A printout from the North Carolina Department
of Corrections shows Claimant incarcerated from February 17, 1997, through June 4,
Claimant protectively filed for widow’s insurance benefits on NH’s earnings record
on October 27, 2011. Claimant alleged in conversations with Social Security Administration
(SSA) personnel that she stabbed NH in self defense. A January 1997 report apparently
related to Claimant’s criminal case includes her allegations of an abusive relationship
and her claim that she stabbed NH during a domestic dispute.
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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335 (2011); All subsequent
references to the Code of Federal Regulations are for the 2011 edition unless otherwise
noted. Program Operations Manual System (POMS) RS 00207.001(A)(1); see also Act § 216(c) (defining the term “widow”). The information provided indicates Claimant
is NH’s widow and satisfies the other requirements for entitlement to widow’s insurance
benefits on NH’s earnings record. However, SSA regulations provide that a claimant
may not become entitled to 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); see POMS GN 00304.060(A) (referenced in POMS RS 00207.001(A)(1)(b)).
Claimant pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter in NH’s death. The regulation, at
20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b), does not define the term “convicted.” The United States Supreme
Court has held that a plea of guilty is, in and of itself, a conviction and like a
jury verdict is conclusive. See Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969); Kercheval v. United States, 274 U.S. 220, 223 (1927). Similarly, North Carolina law states, “For the purpose
of imposing sentence, a person has been convicted when he has been adjudged guilty
or has entered a plea of guilty or no contest.” N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 15A-1331(b)
(West 2011). Moreover, the North Carolina Supreme Court has stated, “It is settled
law in this State that a plea of guilty, freely, understandingly, and voluntarily
entered, is equivalent to a conviction of the offense charged.” State v. Watkins, 194 S.E.2d 800, 808 (N.C. 1973), quoted in State v. Hasty, S.E.2d 428, 433 (N.C. Ct. App. 1999) (concluding plain language of N.C. Gen. Stat.
§ 15A-1331(b) and North Carolina Supreme court holdings establish a plea of guilty
is a conviction for purposes of sentencing). Accordingly, Claimant’s guilty plea constitutes
a conviction for purposes of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).
North Carolina law also establishes that voluntary manslaughter is a felony. A felony
is a crime that was a felony at common law, is or may be punishable by death or imprisonment
in the State’s prison, or is denominated as a felony by statute. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-1. North Carolina law defines voluntary manslaughter as
a felony and indicates that it may be punishable by imprisonment in the State’s prison. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-18 (West 2011) (defining voluntary manslaughter as a Class
D felony); 1997-443 N.C. Sess. Laws § 19.25(q) (changing voluntary manslaughter from
a Class E felony to a Class D felony effective December 1997); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 15A-1340.17(c) (West 2011) (specifying a range of 15 to 74
months imprisonment for a Class E felony committed prior to December 2009). Moreover,
the judgment issued in Claimant’s case specified that in February 1997 she was convicted
of and sentenced for a Class E felony and indicated the judge sentenced Claimant to
a term of 25 to 39 months in the State’s prison. Therefore, even though Claimant
only served four months in prison as part of her suspended sentence, the crime was
a felony because applicable State law categorized the crime as a felony and prescribed
punishment by imprisonment in the State’s prison. Accordingly, Claimant’s conviction
of voluntary manslaughter is a conviction of a felony for purposes of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).
Finally, North Carolina law indicates Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter
establishes she intentionally caused NH’s death. SSA defines “intent” as:
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). Under SSA policy, no presumption exists regarding intent when a claimant is
convicted of voluntary manslaughter. See POMS GN 00304.065(B)(1). To determine intent, SSA looks to the laws of the State where the crime occurred. See id.; see also Social Security Ruling (SSR) 89-6c (adopting as policy the Sixth Circuit Court of
Appeals’ decision in Davis v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 867 F.2d 336 (6th Cir. 1989), where the court held a conviction for second-degree
manslaughter was an intentional killing under SSA policy given Kentucky’s definition
of second-degree manslaughter); SSR 87-23 (explaining SSA bases its decision regarding
intent on whether State law treats voluntary manslaughter as an intentional homicide
and examines the facts of the case if State law is inconclusive).
North Carolina statutes do not appear to define voluntary manslaughter. The North
Carolina Supreme Court, however, has stated:
Voluntary manslaughter is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being without
malice, express or implied, and without premeditation and deliberation. Generally,
voluntary manslaughter occurs when one kills intentionally but does so in the heat
of passion suddenly aroused by adequate provocation or in the exercise of self-defense
where excessive force is utilized or defendant is the aggressor.
State v. McNeil, 518 S.E.2d 486, 506 (N.C. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). In
contrast, involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of a human being by
an act not naturally dangerous to human life or by an act constituting negligence. State v. Debiase, 711 S.E.2d 436, 441-42 (N.C. Ct. App. 2011). In distinguishing murder and manslaughter,
the North Carolina courts have explained that manslaughter does not require a specific
intent to kill, but only that the individual intentionally committed an act that resulted
in death and the act itself is a felony or is likely to cause death or serious bodily
injury. State v. Coble, 527 S.E.2d 45, 47 (N.C. 2000); State v. Ray, 261 S.E.2d 789, 794 (N.C. 1980); State v. Jackson, 550 S.E.2d 225, 229 (N.C. Ct. App. 2001). Based on the definition of voluntary manslaughter
in North Carolina case law, we conclude an individual convicted of voluntary manslaughter
in North Carolina has committed an intentional homicide as defined by SSA policy. Therefore,
Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter establishes she was convicted of a
felony of intentionally causing NH’s death within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).
As part of her application, Claimant asserts NH’s killing was the result of self defense. SSA
policy excludes from the definition of intentional homicides cases where the killing
is the result of self defense. POMS GN 00304.065(A). North Carolina law excuses a killing if, at the time of the killing: (1) the
defendant subjectively believed it necessary to kill the deceased to preserve his
own life or to avoid substantial bodily injury; (2) the defendant’s belief was objectively
reasonable; (3) the defendant was not the initial aggressor; and (4) the amount of
force employed by the defendant was reasonably necessary under the circumstances to
protect himself. J~, 550 S.E.2d at 230. However, if the defendant satisfies the first two prongs of
the definition of self defense but was either the initial aggressor or used unreasonable
force, the killing is not justified and the defendant is guilty of at least voluntary
In this case, the information provided does not indicate Claimant asserted self defense
or, more importantly, that she was excused of the killing altogether based on self
defense. Instead, as discussed above, Claimant pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter—an
intentional homicide. Furthermore, her guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter suggests
that, even if Claimant subjectively and reasonably believed it was necessary to kill
NH to preserve her own life, her actions did not satisfy the legal definition of self
defense under North Carolina law. Therefore, an SSA adjudicator could not conclude
Claimant’s killing of NH was excusable as self defense or exclude Claimant’s conviction
from the definition of intentional homicide.
Claimant’s guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in the death of NH was a conviction
for an intentional homicide, and the plea itself establishes that Claimant did not
act in self defense. Thus, her conviction would preclude her entitlement to widow’s
insurance benefits on NH’s earnings record.
Mary Ann Sloan
Regional Chief Counsel,
Assistant Regional Counsel