STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Two eras clash at the U.S. Supreme Court today. The court will hear a case that involves a law written in 1939 as applied to in-vitro fertilization, which did not exist when the law was written. The question here is whether children conceived in-vitro after the death of a parent are eligible for Social Security survivor benefits.
Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The test case that's before the court was brought by a mother whose twins were denied benefits because they were conceived after their father died.
Karen Capato's husband Robert was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2000. Fearing that his chemotherapy treatments might leave him sterile, Robert deposited sperm at a fertility clinic before the cancer treatments began.
TOTENBERG: Although he initially began to recover, by Thanksgiving of 2001 his condition had begun to deteriorate. Because the couple wanted siblings for their son, they made plans for Karen to use the frozen sperm to conceive a child, if necessary, after Robert's death. Less than four months later, Robert died at the age of 44.
Karen eventually resumed the couple's attempt to have another child. And in 2003, after a successful round of in-vitro fertilization using her husband's sperm, she gave birth to twins.
As she had with her other child, she immediately applied for survivors benefits for the twins, based on Robert's earnings and taxes paid under the Social Security system. But the agency denied the claim.
The government concedes the twins are Robert's biological children. But the Social Security Administration says that it determines eligibility based on the inheritance laws of each state. And in Florida, where the couple lived, children conceived after the death of a parent cannot inherit property unless specifically provided for in a will.
Karen Capato argues that under the 1939 Social Security Act, survivors benefits go to any child of a covered individual, and the word child, she says, is clearly defined as the biological offspring of a married couple. She contends that the section of the law dealing with state's inheritance statutes only applies when biological parentage is disputed. Last year a federal appeals court agreed with Capato, and the Obama administration appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The government maintains that posthumously conceived children fall outside the class of children entitled to survivors benefits because, quote, "they were brought into being by a surviving parent with the knowledge that the deceased biological parent will not be able to contribute wages for their support."
But perhaps most importantly, the government contends that child-parent relationships are generally determined by state law and that nothing in the Social Security Act suggests that Congress intended to depart from that approach. Lawyers for Mrs. Capato reply that the Social Security Act is a federal program conferring federal benefits. They accuse the government of making an argument that is not only perverse, but, quote, "makes no sense at all."
Indeed, they note that under the government's reading of the law, posthumously conceived biological children can be disqualified from receiving survivors benefits because of state law, but those state laws do not disqualify adopted children, stepchildren, grandchildren or even step-grandchildren.
The Supreme Court's eventual ruling in the Capato case will have immediate consequences. At least 100 similar cases are pending before the Social Security Administration.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And we're going to be hearing a lot from the Supreme Court in the coming days. The court hears arguments on everything from sentencing guidelines to President Obama's health care law. And since you'll be hearing so much about this theme, we decided to create a game.
At our website, npr.org, you can find and download our Supreme Court crossword puzzle.
INSKEEP: You complete the puzzle working from clues such as these: What's something justices have for life? Or what's a five-letter word in Latin for a legal case?
GREENE: And not so fast. You'll have to wait till tomorrow to get the answers to those questions.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.