About a month ago, I wrote about the Supreme Court holding oral arguments on an interesting estate planning issue. Yesterday, on May 21, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that twins born to Robert Caputo’s surviving spouse Karen did not qualify for survivor benefits because of a requirement that the federal government use state inheritance laws in these matters.
The facts: Robert died in 2002 from cancer. Using in vitro fertilization (“IVF”) from Robert’s stored sperm, Karen gave birth to a set of twin boys in 2003. Karen applied for Social Security Survivor’s benefits for her two twins and a naturally born son. The application for the twins was rejected by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), which said Robert Capato needed to be alive during the children’s conception to qualify. A district court judge agreed with SSA stating the Social Security Act looked to state laws to determine whether a benefit-seeker is eligible to inherit property.
The US. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned that decision finding that the Caputo twins were clearly Robert Caputo’s biological children.
It was clear from oral arguments the Supreme Court Justices struggled with molding modern 21st century science with 19th and 20th century laws. Even in Justice Ginsburg’s opinion noted the issued “[t]he technology that made the twins’ conception and birth possible, it is safe to say, was not contemplated by Congress when the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act originated (1939) or were amended to read as they now do (1965).”
In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the Third Circuit by holding “[w]e 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…And even if the agency’s longstanding interpretation is not the only reasonable one, it is at least a permissible construction entitled to deference.”
Robert Caputo was a Florida resident at the time of his death and Florida law bars posthumously conceived children from receiving benefits unless expressly listed in the decedent’s will. The court noted that if Caputo was a resident of a different state that a different outcome could have resulted in the awarding of benefits. In fact, the state of Maryland is updating its legislation to provide more transparency to its post-death conception laws.
However, Ginsburg stated that “the law Congress enacted calls for resolution of Karen Capato’s application for child’s insurance benefits by reference to state intestacy law.”
Ginsburg also went as far as to hold that the Supreme Court “cannot replace that reference by creating a uniform federal rule the statute’s text scarcely supports.”