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article imageSupreme Court: In vitro children may not be due survivor benefits

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By Leigh Goessl     May 24, 2012 in Politics
Washington - The Supreme Court has ruled that children conceived from a deceased father's sperm are not necessarily entitled to Social Security benefits.
According to CNN, Robert and Karen Capato had wed in 1999. Shortly afterward, Robert was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Concerned chemotherapy would leave him sterile, Capato stored semen in a sperm bank so the couple could still conceive in the future. His health improved and the couple had a son through natural conception.
Unfortunately, Caputo's health took a turn for the worst, and he passed away in March 2002. After her husband's passing, Karen Capato underwent in-vitro fertilization and gave birth to twins 18 months after Robert's death.
She applied for Social Security survivor benefits for her twins and was denied by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Mrs. Capato appealed and this case had been heard in several lower courts.
Several federal appeals courts have aligned with the position of relying upon state inheritance laws, but the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had sided with Capato, reported the Wall Street Journal. Eventually, the case made it to the Supreme Court after an SSA appeal.
This week the case, Astrue v. Capato (11-159) [PDF], reached a unanimous opinion in the Supreme Court, which agreed with the SSA, ruling the twins were not eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits.
At the root of the issue was Robert Capato's will. His final will made provisions for his son with Karen Capato and two other children from a previous marriage, but the document did not specify if any children conceived after his death could legally be declared as his survivors. This being the situation, the SSA relied upon state inheritance law, and the state of Florida did not consider the twins to be heirs of Robert Capato.
U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court
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ABA Journal explains, "According to the SSA, children are entitled to benefits from a wage earner who dies if they qualify for inheritance under state law." Being Florida residents, the publication reported in this state, "a child may not inherit through intestate succession unless conceived while the deceased parent was still alive."
CNN reported a separate notarized statement said, "Any children born to us, who were conceived by the use of our embryos, shall in all respects and for purposes, including but not limited to descent of property, be children of our bodies."
When policies relating to Social Security survivor benefits were written, technologies used in modern day were not even a blip on the radar, so procedures, such as in-vitro fertilization, were not even imagined decades ago when the Social Security Act provisions were adopted.
"The technology that made the twins’ conception and birth possible, it is safe to say, was not contemplated by Congress when the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act (Act) originated (1939) or were amended to read as they now do (1965)," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginbsurg in the Court's decision.
“Tragic circumstances—Robert Capato’s death before he and his wife could raise a family—gave rise to this case,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginbsurg wrote. “But 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.”
"We find the Social Security Administration's reading better attuned to the statute's text and its design to benefit primarily those the deceased wage earner actually supported in his or her lifetime," said Justice Ginsburg.
Many established laws, understandably, did not consider technology implications when written. However, technology related issues continue to emerge, and as tech progresses faster than the legal progress, many gray, or totally unchartered, areas have emerged. Issues such as wire tapping, surveillance, (what is) criminal activity, copyright, censorship, privacy, to name a few, have all caused legal implications, resulting in old laws needing updates, or new laws being created.
This case, perhaps, highlights a perfect example of the complications technology often creates, as PBS notes in its article, "Supreme Court Decisions Tackle Technology."
Had the Capatos lived in a different state, the outcome would have been entirely different.
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