Supreme Court rules that twins conceived after dad's death won't get survivor benefits

With the High Court mulling President Obama's health care reform law, he had some pointed words for the justices. How significant is the rift? Jeff Glor asked Yale Law School's Linda Greenhouse, a Pulitzer Prize winner who covered the Supreme Court for nearly 30 years for The New York Times.

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a man's children who were conceived through artificial insemination after his death cannot get Social Security survivor benefits.

Justices unanimously ruled that twins born to Robert Capato's surviving wife Karen did not qualify for survivor benefits because of a requirement that the federal government use state inheritance laws.

The Capato twins, conceived using Robert Capato's frozen sperm, were born 18 months after their father died of esophageal cancer. Karen Capato's application for survivor benefits on behalf of the twins was rejected by the Social Security Administration, which said Robert Capato needed to be alive during the children's conception to qualify. A federal judge agreed, saying they had to qualify as Capato's children before his death or qualify under state inheritance law as children who could legally inherit.

Capato died a Florida resident, and Florida law expressly bars children conceived posthumously from inheritance, unless they are named in a will. The only beneficiaries named in Capato's will are his wife, their son and his two children from a previous marriage.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia overturned that decision, saying the Capato twins were clearly the biological children of Robert Capato and deserved the survivor benefits. But other federal appellate courts have ruled differently in similar cases, leaving the Supreme Court to come to a final conclusion.

"We find the Social Security Administration's ruling better attuned to the statute's text and its design to benefit primarily those the deceased wage earner actually supported in his or her lifetime," Ginsburg said. "And even if the agency's longstanding interpretation is not the only reasonable one, it is at least a permissible construction entitled to deference."

The case was heard by the Philadelphia appeals court because Karen Capato unsuccessfully argued that her children should have been considered citizens of New Jersey, which has different inheritance laws from Florida. The twins were conceived in Florida, but Karen Capato moved to New Jersey during the pregnancy.

Ginsburg called Robert Capato's death before he and his wife could provide their children with additional siblings "tragic."

But "the law Congress enacted calls for resolution of Karen Capato's application for child's insurance benefits by reference to state intestacy law," she said. "We cannot replace that reference by creating a uniform federal rule that statute's text scarcely supports."

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