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Survivor Benefits a Decision of the State, Supreme Court Rules

August 22, 2013 | Posted In Family Law, Recent News - Family Law

Twins born eighteen months after the death of their father are not eligible for social security survivor benefits, according to a recent ruling from the United States Supreme Court. According to the Social Security Act, state law dictates who qualifies for survivor benefits, and each state has different stipulations regarding conception method and date of birth in relation to the parent’s date of death. As new technologies open the door to many new methods of conception, even in circumstances where one parent has died, family lawyers in New Jersey say that the Supreme Court ruling highlights a need for amendments that account for these advances in technology.

Nine months after the death of her husband, Karen Capato became pregnant with the twins through in vitro fertilization. She used sperm that Robert Nicholas (Nick) had frozen before undergoing chemotherapy to treat esophageal cancer, a procedure that doctors warned could leave him sterile. The newlywed couple was living in Florida at the time of Nick’s death, and Karen moved to New Jersey soon afterwards. Capato applied for survivors’ insurance benefits in the name of her children, but the Social Security Administration denied her application, as did the U.S. District Court for New Jersey.

In 2011, Capato brought her case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and the judges there reversed the decision. The Appeals Court based their ruling on the use of the word “child” in the Social Security Act, claiming that any biological offspring of Nick Capato is entitled to survivor benefits in the event of his death. But the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the initial decision to deny benefits was the correct one. The Social Security Act includes provisions that limit death benefits for offspring—children must qualify for inheritance under the laws of the state in which their parent died. In the Capato twins’ case, this would be Florida, even though the family currently resides in New Jersey.

Florida law states that any child conceived after the parent’s death is not eligible to collect survivor benefits. In New Jersey, these children can be considered heirs, but because the Capato family moved after Nick’s death, the laws of New Jersey do not apply to them. Although the Appeals Court agreed with the ruling according to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Social Security Act, the judges expressed a sense of “unfairness” in denying the Capato twins survivor benefits.

This case is “the unfortunate consequence of legislation…enacted generations before scientific and technological advances made it possible for couples…to provide for a family even in the tragic circumstance of a death-sentence diagnosis of the wage earner,” the judges wrote. Family lawyers in New Jersey report that in the months following the ruling, these judges have appealed to Congress to update the law to reflect changing technological methods for conception.

After the death of a parent, survivor benefits offer a sense of financial support in a trying time. The family lawyers at New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, P.A., offer legal consultation and representation to any child whose rights to these benefits has been challenged. 

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