High Court Rules State Law Controls Whether Children Conceived After Father's Death Are Entitled to Social Security

The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that children conceived with a dead father’s sperm are not entitled to Social Security survivors benefits if they were not eligible to inherit property from him under state law.

When Robert Capato was diagnosed with cancer, he froze some of his sperm before he started treatment so that he and his wife could have the family they had planned. Eighteen months after he died in Florida in 2002, his wife gave birth to twins using Mr. Capato’s frozen sperm.  Ordinarily, children of a deceased Social Security beneficiary would be entitled to survivors benefits under his work record.

But when Ms. Capato applied for surviving child's insurance benefits on behalf of the twins, the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied her benefits.  The agency cited regulations that require a child receiving survivors benefits to be a "natural child" who is entitled to inherit the father's property under state law.  Under Florida law, children conceived after a parent's death are not entitled to inherit the parent’s property.

A U.S. district court agreed with the SSA, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that it doesn't matter what state inheritance law says.  As long as the children were "dependents" of the wage earner, they are entitled to benefits, the appeals court held.  The SSA appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court has reversed the appeals court and ruled that Florida’s inheritance law controls.  "Tragic circumstances gave rise to this case," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the Court’s opinion.  But Ginsburg said the Court had to follow the law as set down by Congress.  

The Court’s decision would no doubt be different, depending on the state. Some states have updated their laws in recent years to take account of technological advances.  For example, in California posthumously conceived children can inherit property if the child is in utero within two years of a parent's death.  Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana and North Dakota have similar provisions, Ginsburg noted. 

To read the Court’s opinion in the case, Astrue v. Capato (U.S., No. 11-159, May 21, 2012), click here.

For more from ElderLawAnswers on Social Security survivors benefits, click here.

For an earlier ElderLawAnswers article on how children conceived after a parent's death are challenging estate plans and laws, click here.