UPDATES & ANALYSIS

5.22

Supreme Court Follows the Eighth Circuit and Denies Social Security Benefits to Children Conceived After the Death of the Father

by Spencer Cady | May 22, 2012

[The following summary was written by Spencer Cady, a law clerk in Nyemaster Goode’s summer program.  Spencer attends Drake University Law School and serves as an articles editor of the Drake Law Review.]

On May 21, 2012, the Supreme Court issued the decision of Astrue v. Capato.  In an opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Court resolved a circuit split and held that children conceived after their father’s death are not entitled to Social Security survivors’ benefits unless they are eligible to inherit from their father’s estate under state law.

The case arose when Karen Capato gave birth to twins who were conceived through in vitro fertilization after their father died of cancer.  Capato filed a claim for Social Security survivor’s benefits, which the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied.  A federal district court upheld that decision, but the Third Circuit reversed.  According to that court, biological children of a deceased insured are entitled to benefits regardless of how the state treats such children for purposes of intestacy law.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In reaching its decision, the Court gave deference to the SSA’s reading of the applicable statutes and held the intestacy laws of the state where the wage earner was domiciled determines who may receive benefits under the Social Security Act.  As the state where the father was domiciled did not permit a posthumously conceived child to take under the intestacy laws, the children were prohibited from receiving benefits under the Social Security Act.

The decision resolved a circuit split within the United States Court of Appeals.  The Supreme Court’s holding in Astrue v. Capato echoed the Eighth Circuit decision of Beeler v. Astrue from 2011.  In Beeler, Judge Colloton wrote on behalf of the court that posthumously conceived children do not qualify to receive benefits under the Social Security Act unless the child has inheritance rights under state law.

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