Oral argument: Mar. 19, 2012
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (Jan. 4, 2011)
Posthumous Conception, Social Security Act, state Intestacy Law, Statutory Interpretation
Shortly after Robert Nicholas Capato’s death, his wife Karen Capato underwent in vitro fertilization using his frozen sperm and gave birth to twins in 2003. Karen Capato applied for Social Security benefits on behalf of her twins as survivors of a deceased wage earner. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her claim. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) affirmed, ruling that state intestacy law controls eligibility for survivor benefits for posthumously conceived children under the Social Security Act ("Act"). Therefore, the twins were ineligible for benefits under the applicable Florida law. On appeal, the district court affirmed the ALJ’s reading. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed and ruled that the plain language of the Act entitles the Capato twins, whose parentage is not in dispute, to survivor benefits. Petitioner Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of the SSA, argues that the Act requires the agency to apply state intestacy law to determine whether an applicant is the child of an insured wage earner for the purpose of receiving survivor benefits. In contrast, Respondent Karen K. Capato contends that the Act unambiguously entitles undisputed biological children of married parents to survivor benefits, without referring to state intestacy laws. The Supreme Court’s decision will authoritatively interpret the Act’s mandate on the determination of survivor benefits eligibility, and possibly reflect on the balance between legislative rulemaking and unanticipated progress of science and technology.