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The Supreme Court has ruled that a Florida man's children, conceived after his death through in-vitro fertilization, are not entitled to Social Security survivors' benefits. There are more than a hundred similar cases pending before the Social Security Administration
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has the story.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Karen Capato's husband, Robert, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2000. Fearing that his chemotherapy would leave him sterile, Robert deposited sperm at a fertility clinic before his cancer treatments began. The couple's plan was that if necessary, Karen could use the frozen sperm to conceive after Robert's death, so that their son would have siblings. Eighteen months after Robert's death at age 44, Karen carried out that plan and conceived twins.
As she had with her other child, she immediately applied for survivors benefits based on Robert's earnings and taxes paid under the Social Security system. But the agency denied the claim. It contended that under the Social Security Act, eligibility is based on the so-called intestacy laws of each state, meaning whether you would qualify to inherit if there were no will. And in Florida, where the couple lived, the state intestacy law bars inheritance for children conceived posthumously.
Mrs. Capato challenged the Social Security Administration's denial of benefits in court, contending that the agency had misread the statute. She argued that the word "child" is clearly defined in the 1939 Social Security Act as the biological offspring of a married couple. And she contended that the section of the law linking benefits to state inheritance statutes only applies when biological parentage is disputed.
A federal appeals court sided with Capato. But today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against her. Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the Social Security Administration's reading of the law linking it to state inheritance statutes, is better attuned to the design of the Social Security statute - which, she said, is to benefit primarily those the deceased wage-earner actually supported in his or her lifetime.
Ginsburg conceded that the agency's interpretation may not be the only reasonable one. But under the court's longstanding precedent, she said: As long as it is reasonable, it's entitled to deference.
Freezing sperm for future use goes back to the early '60s, according to Pepperdine law professor Kristine Knaplund.
KRISTINE KNAPLUND: Right about the time we started planning the space program, astronauts began banking their sperm - partly because we weren't sure if they would come back, and partly because even if they came back, we weren't sure they'd still be fertile.
TOTENBERG: There are currently more than a hundred cases pending before the Social Security Administration, with claims like Mrs. Capato's. An unknown number of those were filed by the surviving spouses of military personnel, who froze sperm or embryos prior to deploying. All of these claims will turn on the law in the state where the person who died was living at the time of death. And much in those states has yet to be determined by state courts.
Thirteen states have laws that specifically allow posthumously conceived children to inherit in cases where there is no will. Four states specifically do not. But the question is simply not addressed in most state laws - leaving it very much up in the air, in most of the country.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.