Supreme Court Rejects Benefits for Twins Conceived Posthumously

By Mark Walsh — May 21, 2012 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a federal definition of “child” that means children born through in vitro fertilization after the death of a parent may not be guaranteed Social Security survivors’ benefits.

The unanimous decision required the high court to consider implications of advances in the conception of children that were not contemplated when Congress passed the Social Security Act in the 1930’s to provide insurance benefits for the surviving spouses and children of workers.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court that the Social Security Administration was entitled to deference over its interpretation of the relevant statute requiring that an applicant for surviving children’s benefits be a “natural child.” Though there was no dispute that the twins involved in the case were the natural children of Robert Nicholas Capato, who died of esophageal cancer in 2002, a further provision requires that to qualify for benefits a child must be eligible to inherit property under relevant state law.

Facing his cancer diagnosis, Capato donated sperm for possible use for in vitro fertilization. The twins were born 18 months after his death.
Under “intestacy” law in Florida, where Capato lived at the time of his death, the twins were not entitled to inherit their father’s property because they were conceived after his death.

The twins’ mother, Karen Capato, applied for Social Security benefits on the twins’ behalf, but the federal government denied her claim. She argued that a provision of Social Security law defining child as a “child of an [insured] individual” should have settled the case because the twins clearly fit that definition. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, agreed with her in a decision last year.

The Social Security Administration appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. In its decision today in Astrue v. Capato, the high court concluded that the “child of an insured individual” provision had to be read in concert with another provision of the act that makes reference to state inheritance laws.

Justice Ginsburg said that Ms. Capato’s argument that “biological” children of a parent be eligible for benefits is not supported by the law.

“In 1939, [when the Social Security Act was amended to provide survivors’ benefits to family members] there was no such thing as a scientifically proven biological relationship between a child and a father, which is part of the reason that the word ‘biological’ appears nowhere in the act,” Justice Ginsburg said.

She noted that a biological parent is not necessarily a child’s parent under law. “Moreover, laws directly addressing use of today’s assisted reproduction technology do not make biological parentage a universally determinative criterion,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Act’s reliance on state inheritance laws in some circumstances to determine who is a “child” serve the act’s objective of “providing dependent members of a wage-earner’s family with protection against the hardship occasioned by the lost of the insured’s earnings,” Justice Ginsburg said.

“Intestacy laws in a number of states ... do provide for inheritance by posthumously conceived children, and under federal law, a child conceived shortly before her father’s death may be eligible for benefits even though she never actually received her father’s support,” the opinion said. “It was nonetheless Congress’ prerogative to legislate for the generality of cases. It did so here by employing eligibility to inherit under state intestacy law as a workable substitute for burdensome case-by-case determinations whether the child was, in fact, dependent on her father’s earnings.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.