22 May Capato Ruling Is Bad News/Good News
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a case that I posted about on March 23. (https://iflg.net/blog/2012/03/23/u-s-supreme-survivor-benefit-case-ivf-children-of-deceased-parents/).
In Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security vs Capato, on Behalf of B. N. C. et al., the Court reversed the decision of the Third U.S. District Court and ruled that Karen Capato is not entitled to receive Social Security benefits for her twins, who were conceived after her husband’s death.
Karen and Robert “Nick” Capato married in 1999. Tragically, Nick Capato was diagnosed with esophageal cancer shortly after. Instead of just accepting defeat and coping with this heartbreaking disease, the couple elected to prepare for their future. Karen and Nick wanted the prospect of conceiving biological children, so they chose to deposit Nick’s sperm at a fertility clinic with the intent of conceiving via in vitro fertilization (IVF) at a later date. While they were able to naturally conceive and birth a son during their brief time together, Nick passed away from cancer in March 2002. A year-and-a-half later, Karen gave birth again - to twins conceived through IVF using her deceased husband’s sperm. Karen later applied for Social Security benefits for the twins and was denied by the SSA. The trial court agreed, but the appellate court reversed, and the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the appellate decision, stating that the SSA’s original determination was justified.
There is both good news and bad news out of this ruling. On the one hand, the Court decision defers to state law; in Florida, where Nick lived at the time of his death, state law does not entitle children conceived post-mortem to inherit from the deceased biological parent. Had Nick lived in a state where the law allowed the posthumously conceived twins to inherit his estate, they would have been entitled to Nick’s Social Security survivor benefits as well.
The good news is that the decision refutes Karen Capato’s argument that the biology and her legal marriage to Nick entitled the children to Nick’s Social Security benefits. Rather, the Court’s written opinion points out that someone biologically related to a child, such as a sperm donor, is not necessarily a parent to the child. This may also be interpreted conversely—that you don’t necessarily have to be a biological parent to have your children (conceived through assisted reproduction) inherit through your estate. The decision also states that parentage is a separate issue from whether or not a couple is legally married.
In summary, the wording of the decision offers support for a child’s right to benefits or inheritance from a parent who is neither legally married nor biologically related to the child, such as in the case of a gay or lesbian non-biological parent. The downside, however, is that the Social Security inheritance rights of children conceived via assisted reproduction will continue to differ from state to state.
For further information, the text of the Court’s opinion can be found here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/11-159.pdf.