In a landmark ruling, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that children conceived with a dead father’s frozen sperm are not entitled to Social Security benefits if they were not eligible to inherit property from him under state law.
This outcome has the potential to reshape the way in which society views Social Security benefits and who is entitled to them.
The Capato’s Challenge
Shortly after the Capatos were married, Mr. Capato was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was told that chemotherapy might render him sterile.
Since they wanted children, Mr. Capato decided to solicit the assistance of a sperm bank. However, Mrs. Capato ended up conceiving a child anyway.
The family wanted their child to have a sibling, but, tragically, Mr. Capato died before this desire could be realized.
Consequently, shortly after his death, Mrs. Capato underwent treatment for in vitro fertilization using the sample Mr. Capato previously placed in the sperm bank.
Mrs. Capato ended up giving birth to twins nearly 18 months after her husband’s death. On behalf of those twins, she petitioned the Social Security Administration for benefits.
However, the Administration denied her request on the grounds that the twins were not technically the “children” of Mr. Capato.
Frustrated by this, Mrs. Capato appealed the decision all the way until it got to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in her favor.
The Social Security Administration appealed that Third Circuit ruling and the final outcome was put squarely on the shoulders of the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg authored the 9-0 opinion in Astrue v. Capato. Her focus was on a crucial provision in the Social Security Act that relegated the task of defining who can count as a “child” to the states and their intestacy laws.
Unlike the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the Justices rejected the notion that this provision was only relevant for determining the status of an applicant if it was unclear whether he was the child or legally adopted child of an insured individual.
Based on this provision, the Justices explained that a state’s intestacy laws and the way it defines “child” governs. In this case, the state was Florida.
Florida’s laws of intestacy only allow a child born after a parent’s death to inherit property if the child was conceived during that parent’s lifetime.
Therefore, since the twins were not conceived during the father’s lifetime they were unable to inherit his property, and, by extension, ineligible for Social Security benefits.
Are Babies Born Through In Vitro Fertilization “Children”?
It is extremely important to note that the Supreme Court’s decision did not rule out the possibility of a baby being born through in vitro fertilization counting as “child” under the Social Security Act.
Nowhere in the Court’s opinion did Justice Ginsberg flatly declare babies born through in vitro fertilization incapable of counting as “children” within the meaning of the Social Security Act. In fact, the opinion leaves this determination up to the states.
In other words, as long as a state’s definition of “child” includes births due to in vitro fertilization or does not explicitly exclude these births, such children might be eligible for Social Security benefits.
What’s the Takeaway?
The real takeaway from the ruling is that a child who is conceived and born after the death of one his parents cannot solely rely on a genetic connection to that deceased parent in order to qualify for Social Security benefits.
Ultimately, this decision will have a dramatic effect on who can actually get benefits when their parent passes away.
Moreover, predicting how lower courts will analyze and interpret the ruling could be exceptionally challenging. It is quite likely that the Court will face similar legal challenges in the years ahead.
(Sources: http://www.oyez.com/cases/2010-2019/2011/2011_11_159#sort=ideology, http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/astrue-v-capato, and http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/us/children-not-entitled-to-dead-fathers-benefits-justices-rule.html?_r=2 )