By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that children conceived through in vitro fertilization after the death of a parent were not automatically entitled to survivor benefits under the Social Security law.
The justices unanimously sided with the Obama administration and overturned a U.S. appeals court's ruling for a New Jersey woman who is seeking benefits for her twins conceived by artificial insemination after her husband's death.
The high court case pitted new reproductive technologies against longstanding requirements to qualify for child survivor benefits under the Social Security Act that date back to 1939.
Government lawyers said the Social Security Administration has received more than 100 claims for survivor benefits by posthumously conceived children, with claims increasing significantly in recent years.
The ruling was a defeat for Karen Capato, who sued in federal court in New Jersey after her request for Social Security benefits for her twins had been denied.
In 1999, her husband, Robert Capato deposited sperm at a fertility clinic after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He died in March 2002, and his wife then underwent in vitro fertilization. She gave birth to twins in September 2003.
The Social Security Administration says eligibility for benefits depends partly on whether the applicable state law would allow a posthumously conceived child to inherit property in the absence of a will. The Supreme Court agreed.
In Capato's case, the state law at issue bars children conceived posthumously from inheritance unless named in a will. Capato's only beneficiaries named in his will were his wife, their son and two children from a previous marriage.
Capato's attorneys argued that a posthumously conceived child was covered by the law's definition of a child for the purpose of receiving Social Security survivor benefits.
But the Supreme Court disagreed in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
She said the Social Security Administration's interpretation was more in line with the law's text and its design to benefit primarily those the deceased wage earner actually supported in his or her lifetime.
Even if the government's longstanding interpretation of the law was not the only reasonable one, it was a permissible and entitled to deference, she said.
Under the appeals court's ruling that was overturned, "biological children of married parents can gain benefits even if their father died many years before their birth," she said in summarizing the opinion from the bench.
The Supreme Court case is Astrue v. Capato, No. 11-159.
(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Philip Barbara)