SSR 60-21. FACT AND DATE OF DEATH -- DEATH BY DROWNING
- An insured individual disappeared during a storm while fishing on Lake Erie in a small rowboat. After a thorough investigation of the facts of the disappearance and continued absence, based upon all of the circumstances of this particular case, it is determined that the individual died on the date he disappeared.
W filed application in June 1957 for mother's insurance benefits for herself and child's benefits for her children on the social security account of her husband, H, who had disappeared on May 15, 1957, and who, she alleged, had perished in a boating accident.
Before he left home on May 15, 1957, H had told W that he was about to make some business calls and then was going fishing. After visiting the office of his employer, he attempted to rent a boat from X boat house in order to go fishing on Lake Erie. The operator of the boat house refused to rent him a boat because the Lake was rough, storm warnings having been posted. When H became insistent, the operator of X boat house suggested he try another boat house. A short time later, H did rent a small rowboat with an outboard motor from another boat house. The operator of that boat house had also advised H that it would be unsafe for him to go out of the river and into the lake because of the dangerous weather conditions.
H failed to return. The boat was later located on Lake Erie about 5½ miles from the boat house. The bottom was scraped, the propeller of the outboard motor was bent, the gas tank was empty, the boat was half full of water, and H's fishing equipment was strewn about in the bottom of the boat. An extensive investigation was conducted by the police, the U.S. Coast Guard, and several insurance companies; however, no trace of H was ever found.
Since there was a total of about $32,000 in insurance payable upon H's death, two of the four companies that insured H's life made an extensive investigation into H's habits, background, health, and character. The evidence they obtained indicated that H was a devoted husband and father of three children, that on the day of H's disappearance, Lake Erie was very rough and was running 3 foot swells, a 15 knot wind was blowing from the northeast, storm warnings were up, and small craft had been advised against going out into the lake. The four insurance companies paid the total of approximately $32,000 on policies insuring H's life.
It is well established by court decisions that one who files a claim with an administrative agency has the burden of establishing that the required conditions of eligibility have been met.
Regulations No. 4, § 404.704 provides, among other things, that an applicant for monthly benefits or a lump-sum death payment based upon the wages and self-employment income of a deceased individual shall file supporting evidence as to the death of such individual and as to the time and place of such death. The same section further provides that this may be in the nature of, among other things, a certified copy of a public record of death or a statement of the funeral director or attending physician, or similar evidence of death, and that when such evidence is not available, other evidence of probative value may be acceptable. Death may be proved by evidence showing such facts and circumstances connected with the absence of the individual as would reasonably warrant a conclusion of death.
A finding that death occurred at or about the time of his disappearance may be reasonable where the individual was exposed to some specific peril at or about the time of his disappearance, or in other cases where the evidence shows convincingly that it was improbable, under all the circumstances, that the missing individual survived long after his disappearance. In such cases, consideration must be given to the missing individual's domestic situation, his finances, his health, his mental outlook, whether he was bound by ties of affection to his family and had no apparent reason for leaving them, and whether he probably would have communicated with them had he long survived.
It appears to be well established that H was a devoted husband and father; that he was in good health; that he had no serious or unusual financial worries; that he left home in good spirits to attend a business matter with the announced intention of going on a fishing trip after he had attended to the business matter; that, in spite of being warned about the dangerous boating conditions, he did embark upon his fishing expedition; and that his battered boat was found the next day in Lake Erie unoccupied by H.
An individual operating a small boat in defiance of warnings from those familiar with both the lake and the weather conditions was in a position of potential peril. These circumstances lead to the reasonable conclusion that H was tossed out of the boat by the heavy weather and thus met his death by drowning. There is nothing to indicate any motive for H's voluntary disappearance, but on the other hand, the evidence supports the conclusion that H met his death on the day of his disappearance. Under these circumstances, it is held that the evidence submitted concerning the circumstances surrounding H's disappearance justifies a finding that H died on May 15, 1957.