Supreme Court Rules on Survivorship Benefits in Posthumous Birth Case

We previously discussed the Supreme Court case Astrue v. Capato. At root in the case was the issue of whether or not children conceived after the death of a parent are entitled to federal survivorship benefits. It is important to note that this refers only to those whose actual conception occurred following the passing, usually using frozen sperm that was saved while the parent was still alive. While representing a relatively small group of children, our New York City estate planning lawyers know that these sorts of techniques are actually growing in popularity. Cancer patients and military servicemembers are the most likely to take advantage of this option.

The father of the children that sparked this case had his sperm frozen after being diagnosed with cancer in 2000–he passed away in 2002. Not long after his passing, his wife became pregnant with twins. After their birth she applied to the U.S. Social Security Administration for survivorship benefits. The agency denied the claim, sparking a lawsuit.

The district court sided with the SSA in denying the claim because application of the state intestacy laws would not have allowed the children to recover. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and arguments were made in the middle of March.

This week the nation’s highest court issued its opinion in the case–reversing the U.S. Court of Appeals and siding with the district court. In other words, the decision agrees with the Social Security Administration, allowing them to deny benefits to the children conceived after the death of their father. Estate planning lawyers understand that this decision will need to be taken into account when families who may be in this situation conduct long-term financial planning.

The ruling holds that the Administration is free to interpret the Social Security Act to allow benefits to children only if those children could inherent from a father under state intestacy laws. The Court found that this reading of the law better matched the purpose of providing support to those who were supported by the deceased wage earner during his or her lifetime.

Court observers noted that there seemed to be genuine disagreement between the justices during the arguments on this issue. However, those disputes must have been worked out, because the final decision was a 9-0 opinion with all justices in agreement.

For local families, this ruling means that a genetic link to a parent is not necessarily enough to trigger Social Security survivorship benefits. This should be taken into account when conducting estate planning or when deciding whether to take advantage of new assisted reproduction technology.

See Our Related Blog Posts:

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Benefits for Posthumously Conceived Children Case

Questions Remain Regarding Rights of Posthumously Conceived Children

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