As newer ways of conceiving children have been developed, many family and probate laws have had to change. Babies are born from surrogates, donors and in vitro fertilization, which can easily complicate probate and family law issues. One woman found out that her estate administration plans were not in order when she attempted to retrieve Social Security benefits for her children, who were born 18 months after their father died.

At issue was whether children born after their father’s death would be permitted to receive government-sponsored survivors’ benefits. The woman, who had twins, was denied by an administrative judge in her attempt to receive Social Security death benefits for the twins. An appellate court ruled in her favor, however, but the Social Security Administration appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices were unanimous in denying the children the benefits.

The man had developed esophageal cancer in 1999 when he decided to freeze his sperm. After a recovery, the couple had a child naturally. However, after the man died in 2002, his wife decided to conceive using in vitro fertilization. A notarized document stipulated that any embryos that the woman conceived with his sperm would be considered his survivors, but the man’s will did not include this provision.

Justices concluded that even the man’s probate documents could not override the administrative correctness of the law as interpreted by the Social Security Administration. Survivors’ benefits are intended for those who were alive at the same time as their parents. Although they acknowledged that the statute was ambiguous, the justices did not make a move to clarify the definition of “child.”

Ultimately, we cannot be sure whether the benefits would have been distributed if they were defined in the man’s will instead of in a separate rider. It appears the justices still would not have ruled in the woman’s favor.

Luis E. Barreto