(CN) – A widow who used in vitro fertilization to give birth to twins 18 months after their father’s death cannot get more Social Security benefits, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Robert Capato, who had two children from a prior marriage, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer shortly after marrying Karen in 1999.
Hoping to start a family, but knowing that chemotherapy treatment might make Robert sterile, Robert and Karen deposited his semen at a sperm bank. Karen also conceived a son naturally with Robert and gave birth to that child in 2001.
When Robert died in March 2002, he named his three children as beneficiaries. The will did not contain a provision for any “unborn children.”
Shortly thereafter, Karen used in vitro fertilization using her late husband’s frozen sperm to conceive twins, B.N.C. and K.N.C., born 18 months after Robert’s death.
The Social Security Administration refused, however, to grant Karen insurance benefits on the twins’ behalf.
Though an administrative law judge affirmed, the 3rd Circuit ruled last year that the twins must be considered children under the Social Security Act (SSA) as the “undisputed biological” offspring of a deceased wage earner and his widow.
Since the issue had divided other appellate panels, the Supreme Court took up the case in November.
The justices were unanimous Monday that the 3rd Circuit decision could not hold.
“We conclude that the SSA’s reading is better attuned to the statute’s text and its design to benefit primarily those supported by the deceased wage earner in his or her lifetime,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. “And even if the SSA’s longstanding interpretation is not the only reasonable one, it is at least a permissible construction that garners the court’s respect under [precedent].”
The decision notes “conspicuous flaws” with the 3rd Circuit and Capato’s statutory reading.
“We note, in addition, that marriage does not ever and always make the parentage of a child certain, nor does the absence of marriage necessarily mean that a child’s parentage is uncertain,” Ginsburg wrote. “An unmarried couple can agree that a child is theirs, while the parentage of a child born during a marriage may be uncertain.
“Finally, it is far from obvious that Karen Capato’s proposed definition -‘biological child of married parents’ – would cover the posthumously conceived Capato twins. Under Florida law, a marriage ends upon the death of a spouse. If that law applies, rather than a court-declared preemptive federal law, the Capato twins, conceived after the death of their father, would not qualify as ‘marital’ children.”
“Tragic circumstances – Robert Capato’s death before he and his wife could raise a family – gave rise to this case,” the decision concludes. “But the law Congress enacted calls for resolution of Karen Capato’s application for child’s insurance benefits by reference to state intestacy law. We cannot replace that reference by creating a uniform federal rule the statute’s text scarcely supports.”