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SCOTUS: No Survivor Benefits for Posthumously-Conceived Children

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that twins conceived after their father's death were not entitled to his Social Security benefits.

In the opinion -- reversing a prior Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision that granted benefits to the posthumously-conceived children -- the unanimous Supreme Court noted that the Social Security Administration's interpretation of the survivor benefit statute "is better attuned to the statute's text and its design to benefit primarily those supported by the deceased wage earner in his or her lifetime."

In August 1999 -- shortly after Robert and Karen Capato were married -- Robert was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and was told that the chemotherapy he required might render him sterile. The Capatos, wanting children, stored Robert's semen in a sperm bank. The Capatos conceived naturally, and gave birth to a son in August 2001, but they wanted their son to have a sibling.

Robert died in March of 2002. Three months before his death, he executed a will in Florida naming his son with Karen and two children from a prior marriage as his beneficiaries. The will did not mention unborn children, although Karen claims that she and her husband spoke to their attorney about including unborn children.

Karen began in vitro fertilization treatments shortly after Robert's death, using his frozen sperm. In September 2003, she gave birth to twins. The next month, she applied for survivor benefits for the twins based on her husband's earnings record. The Social Security Administration denied her claim, and Karen sued. Last year, the Third Circuit ruled in Karen's favor, finding that "the undisputed biological children of a deceased wage earner and his widow" qualify for survivors' benefits without regard to state intestacy law."

The Supreme Court disagreed.

Justice Ginsburg, writing for the Court, observed that the key survivor benefits provision calls for the SSA to look to state laws concerning inheritance to determine whether an applicant qualifies as the child of the parent in question. Since the Capatos lived in Florida, and Robert's will was signed there, Florida law controlled the outcome. Under Florida law, a child born after a parent's death must have been conceived during the deceased parent's lifetime to inherit, so the twins did not qualify for survivor benefits, The New York Times reports.

"The law Congress enacted calls for resolution of Karen Capato's application for child's insurance benefits by reference to state intestacy law. We cannot replace that reference by creating a uniform federal rule the statute's text scarcely supports," Ginsburg wrote.

The SSA won this round, but that does not mean that all posthumously-conceived children are excluded from survivor benefits; the SSA could be required to pay benefits to posthumously-conceived children in a state where the children can collect though intestacy law.

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