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Supreme Court rejects widow's claim in Social Security case

Children conceived in vitro from her late husband's sperm are not automatically entitled to survivors benefits, justices agree. The court also rules in an immigration case.

May 22, 2012|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said,"Tragic circumstances gave rise to this case."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said,"Tragic circumstances gave rise… (Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON — A widow who conceived a baby from the sperm of her late husband is not automatically entitled to Social Security survivors benefits to help raise the child, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The 9-0 decision rejected the claim that a biological child of a married couple, even one born years after the father died, always qualifies as his survivor under the Social Security Act.

Instead, the justices upheld the government's multi-part definition of who deserves survivors benefits. One requirement is that a "natural child" is one who is entitled to inherit the father's property under state law.

"Tragic circumstances gave rise to this case," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, noting that Robert Capato died of cancer in Florida in 2002 before he and his wife, Karen, could have the family they envisioned. He deposited sperm in a sperm bank after he got sick.

About 18 months after his death, his widow gave birth to twins who were conceived through in vitro fertilization. She sought survivors benefits for the two children, contending that since they were the children of a married father, they should receive benefits he had earned.

The Social Security Administration said it was sympathetic but rejected her claim. It pointed to regulations that define a "natural child" as one who could inherit the father's property under state law. Under Florida law, "children conceived after a parent's death" are not entitled to inherit his property, Ginsburg said. The children were not named in his will.

Ginsburg said the court was obliged to follow the law as Congress wrote it. Her opinion in Astrue vs. Capato said the result might well be different in other states. In California, "posthumously conceived children" can inherit property "if the child is in utero within two years of a parent's death," she said. The laws in Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana and North Dakota have similar provisions, she said.

In a second decision, the court made it harder for illegal immigrants to avoid deportation by arguing their immigrant parents had obtained legal status as lawful U.S. residents.

One provision in federal immigration law permits leniency for an illegal immigrant who faces possible deportation but who had been granted lawful residence status for at least five years. Until Monday, it was unclear whether undocumented children could take advantage of their parents' legal status.

The issue can arise when illegal immigrants are charged with crimes that could subject them to deportation. In a 9-0 decision, the court agreed with the government that individuals must earn their own leniency through years of lawful residence. A parent's legal residence is not transferred to a child, the court said in Holder vs. Martinez-Gutierrez.

The ruling reverses a decision from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which was alone in adopting the more liberal rule that allowed children to take advantage of their parents' legal status.

david.savage@latimes.com

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