Medical and technological breakthroughs in recent decades have impacted virtually every facet of life–estate planning is no exception. For example, many rules in the field hinge on definitions of legal heirs. In the past, it was pretty clear who those heirs were, typically biological or legally adopted children. When an indiviual dies intestate (without a will), then each state has specific default rules regarding what to do with the individual’s assets. Often the biological or legally adopted children receive part or all of those assets.
But it doesn’t end with inheritance rules. Many state and federal programs also use these definitions to make decisions about who qualifies for certain benefits. This includes the federal Social Security program. In many cases, when a parent dies, a family eligible for Social Security assistance for the minor children that remain following their parent’s passing. In the past there as little confusion over when a child did or did not qualify for those survivor benefits.
No longer. As recent of improvements in medical research have changed reproductive technology, the line between when a child is considered an heir and when they are not is blurred. That is perhaps best evidenced by a new case that is slated to go before one state court.
In Mattison v. Commissioner of Social Security, the plaintiff in the case is a mother who gave birth to twin boys several years ago. She is seeking Social Security benefits for the children because her late-husband (and the twins biological father) died in 2001. In the past there would have been little controversy surrounding the case, as the boys would typically qualify for support. However, the unique aspect in this case is that the children were conceived after the father’s death. The man had battled health problems for some time, and before his death he had his sperm frozen. It wasn’t until a few days after his passing that his wife used the frozen sperm to conceive the children. This is unique, because while parents often die before their children are born (when they are in the womb), it is rare to have the children actually conceived after the death.
In a previous U.S. Supreme Court hearing, the high court ruled that the children were not automatically guaranteed the Social Security benefit. Instead, the Court determined that the specific definition of heir in each individual state determines whether the benefits accrue or not. In other words, it is a matter for the states to decide. As such, the case was returned to the state court where, according to a recent MLive article on the matter, a hearing is soon scheduled. However, those familiar with the situation argue that the state court is unlikely to rule in the woman’s favor because the law as currently written requires conception before death to be deemed an heir.
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