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Florida Intestacy Law Applied to Deny Social Security Benefits to Posthumously Conceived Children

Written by Anya Kudszus • May 25th, 2012

Probate Litigation,  

The United States Supreme Court, in the recent case of Astrue v. Capato, used Florida intestacy law to determine that the Social Security Act (Act) does not apply to extend benefits to children conceived and born after a Florida wage-earner’s death.

Eighteen months after Karen Capato’s husband, Robert Capato, died of cancer, Karen Capato gave birth to twins conceived through in vitro fertilization using Robert’s frozen sperm.  The Capatos were residents of Florida.  Karen applied for Social Security survivor’s benefits for the twins.  The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Karen’s application, and litigation ensued.

Karen argued that the twins fall under the definition of child contained in 42 USC § 416(e).  Section 416(e) of the Act defines “child” to mean: “(1) the child or legally adopted child of an individual, (2) a stepchild [under certain circumstances], and (3) … the grandchild or stepgrandchild of an individual or his spouse [under certain conditions].”  Section (e)(1) does not elaborate the conditions under which a child qualifies for benefits.  Karen argued that because the twins were undisputedly Robert’s children, the twins qualified for SSA benefits.

The SSA argued that subsequent provisions of the Act control the definition of child, specifically section 416(h)(2)(A) which provides that: 

In determining whether an applicant is the child or parent of [an] insured individual for purposes of this subchapter, the Commissioner of Social Security shall apply [the intestacy law of the insured individual’s domiciliary State].

The district court affirmed the SSA’s decision.  The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “the undisputed biological children of a deceased wage earner and his widow” qualify for survivors benefits without regard to state intestacy law, finding that there can be no doubt when the claimant is the biological child of a married couple. 

The United States Supreme Court held that the Act is designed to benefit primarily those supported by the deceased wage earner in his or her lifetime.  The Supreme Court noted that marriage does not ever and always make the parentage of a child certain, and that Karen’s definition “biological child of married parents” would cover the posthumously conceived Caputo twins, noting that under Florida law, a marriage ends upon the death of a spouse.  See Price v. Price, 114 Fla. 233, 235, 153 So. 904, 905 (1934).

The United States Supreme Court also noted that many states have statutes that provide for posthumously conceived children.  Florida law does not have such a statute.  Florida law contains as statute addressing afterborn heirs, section 732.106, which states:

Heirs of the decedent conceived before his or her death, but born thereafter, inherit intestate property as if they had been born in the decedent’s lifetime.

The Florida statute does not state that heirs of the decedent conceived after death inherit intestate property as if they had been born during the decedent’s lifetime.  Because Florida intestacy law controlled, the Capato twins were not entitled to SSA benefits.