Last week the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that our New York estate planning attorneys know may effect on how some families in unique situations craft estate and inheritance plans to provide for their children in the future.
The case, Astrue v. Capato, revolves around one key question: are children conceived in vitro following their father’s death entitled to survivor benefits. While the issue may seem to apply only to a very small group, many more families are having sperm preserved in order to keep options open down the road. The process is particularly common for families with fathers who have cancer or are in the military.
For example, as explained in a CNN article, the father of the family involved in this particular litigation had his sperm frozen in 2000 after being diagnosed with cancer. He died in 2002. Shortly after his death his wife used the preserved sperm to become pregnant–she ultimately gave birth to twins. After the birth, the mother applied to the Social Security Administration for survivor benefits. The agency denied the claim, sparking the legal claim which is now at the Supreme Court level.
The U.S. Court of Appeals found that because the children were “undisputed biological children” of the parents, then they should qualify for survivor benefits. Conversely, the government has argued that the children in this case do not fit the definition outlined in Social Security law to trigger the benefits. Instead, the government argues that state law dictates whether posthumously conceived children are entitled to the benefits. The state where the plaintiffs are from in this case, Florida, holds that children conceived after a parent’s death are not entitled to inherit property via intestacy rules.
Observers of last week’s Supreme Court hearings suggest that the justices seemed legitimately split on the issue.
It is important to remember that these arguments apply to children conceived after death, not just born after death. If a parent died while a child is in the womb, there is agreement that the child’s inheritance rights will be the same as children who were alive when the parent died.
This is a very delicate area of inheritance law, and each New York estate planning attorney at our firm appreciates that the rules dictating how the law treats these children still needs to be fleshed out. The ultimate outcome of this Supreme Court case will guide future Social Security survivorship benefit decisions, but many other inheritance questions will remain open. No matter what, it is vital for families where posthumous inheritance is a potential issue to seek out experienced legal help to plan ahead for all contingencies.
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