Astrue v. Capato

PETITIONER: Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security
RESPONDENT: Karen K. Capato
LOCATION: Northwest Center for Infertility & Reproductive Endocrinology

DOCKET NO.: 11-159
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 566 US (2012)
GRANTED: Nov 14, 2011
ARGUED: Mar 19, 2012
DECIDED: May 21, 2012

Charles A. Rothfeld - for the respondents
Eric D. Miller - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1999, shortly after Robert and Karen Capato were married in New Jersey, Robert was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and was advised that chemotherapy might render him sterile. Before beginning treatment, Robert deposited semen at the Northwest Center for Infertility and Reproductive Endocrinology so the couple could conceive a child in the future. Karen Capato conceived a child naturally, however, giving birth to a son in August of 2001. The Capatos wanted their son to have a sibling, but Robert's health deteriorated quickly, and he died in Florida in March of 2002. He was insured by social security when he died. His will named only his son and two children from a previous marriage as beneficiaries.

Shortly after Robert's death, Karen began treatment for in vitro fertilization using her husband's frozen semen. She gave birth to twins on September 23, 2003, eighteen months after her husband's death. In October 2003, Karen applied for benefits from the Social Security Administration on behalf of her twins. § 416(e) of the Social Security Act ("SSA") defined "child" as "the child or legally adopted child of an individual". In addition, the child must be dependent on an insured individual at the time of the qualified individual's death. § 416(h) provided an alternate method of determining a child's qualification, directing the Commissioner of Social Security to look to the intestate property laws of the domiciliary of the deceased insured individual.

The Social Security Administration denied her claim, and Karen requested a hearing in front of an administrative court. While noting that granting benefits would be consistent with the purpose of social security, the court held that the twins were not Robert's "child(ren)" for the purposes of the SSA. The district court affirmed, echoing the ALJ's interpretation of "child(ren)". The court also held that because Robert died while domiciled in Florida, Florida's law of intestacy applies. The United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, held that the twins were clearly children under § 416(e) of the SSA because they were the biological children of a married couple. It rejected the district court's argument that Florida state intestacy law should apply before § 416(e), holding § 416(h) to be an alternate definition only used when a child's status is in doubt.


Are Karen K. Capato's twins - conceived by in vitro fertilization after their biological father's death - "child(ren)" under Title II of the Social Security Act?

Media for Astrue v. Capato

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 19, 2012 in Astrue v. Capato

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 21, 2012 in Astrue v. Capato

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has our opinion in Case Number 11-159, Astrue versus Capato.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns the entitlement of children conceived after the death of their father to Social Security survivor's benefits.

To qualify as a survivor of a deceased wage earner, a child so conceived, like child applicants generally, must be eligible to inherit from the insured under state intestacy law.

That standard was not met in this case.

The children in question are twins conceived through in vitro fertilization using deceased wage earner, Robert Capato's frozen sperm.

They were born 18 months after his death.

The Social Security Administration denied an application for benefits filed on the twins' behalf by their mother, Karen Capato, widow of the wage earner.

The reason for the denial, Robert Capato died domiciled in Florida, and under that state law, children conceived after a parent's death do not qualify for intestate succession.

On judicial review, the Federal District Court affirmed the denial of benefits, the Court of Appeals for the third Circuit however reversed.

It held that biological children of married parents are survivors entitled to benefits without regard to state intestacy law.

The governing Social Security provisions state first in 42 U.S.C. Section 402(d) that benefits are payable to every child as defined in Section 416(e).

416(e) in turn defines child, as relevant here, to mean the child of an insured individual.

A subsequent provision, Section 416(h)(2)(A), adds in determining whether an applicant is the child of an insured individual for purposes of this subchapter, the Commissioner of Social Security shall apply the intestacy law of the insured individual's domiciliary State.

Respondent Karen Capato, in line with the Third Circuit, relies on the initial definition of child in 416(e), child means the child of an insured individual.

Because the Capato twins are undeniably the children of Robert and Karen Capato, the Third Circuit reasoned they met before 416(e) definition.

There was no cause to refer to 416(h), the Court explained, for that Section is labeled determination of family status when, as in this case, claimants of the biological children of a married couple the Court said, there is no family status to determine so for 416(e) alone controls.

But the Social Security Administration found that one must read on beyond 416(e) to determine who is a child for survivor's benefit purposes.

Section 416(h) states explicitly that the definitions therein contained apply to the entire subchapter, including 416(e).

In other words, the 416(e) tautological definition, "child" means child is completed in 416(h) which instructs that the Capato twins could gain benefits only if they were entitled to inherit under the intestacy law of their father's domicile at death.

We agree that Section 416(h) serves as a gateway through which all applicants for benefits as a child must pass.

Resort to state law on matters of family status is common in the Social Security Act, notably, the Act refers to state law to determine an applicant status as a wife, widow, husband or widower.

The Act also sets several duration of relationship limitations and durational limits are also found in state statutes that accord inherit into rights to children conceived after their father's death.

In contrast, under the Court of Appeals' reading, biological children of married parents can gain benefits even if their father died many years before their birth.

Reliance on state intestacy law to determine who is a child for survivor's benefit purposes, serves Congress' main aim to protect dependent members of wage earner's family against the hardship occasioned by the loss of the insured earning.

As this Court explained in prior case where state intestacy law provides that a child may take personal property from a father's estate, it may reasonably meet that what that the child were more likely be dependent during the parent's life and at his death.

In sum, we find the Social Security Administration's reading better attuned to the statute's text and its design to benefit primarily those that deceased wage earner actually supported in his or her lifetime and even if the agency's long standing interpretation is not the only reasonable one, it is at least a permissible construction entitled to deference under our decision in Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council.

For the reasons stated spelled out in detail in the Court's opinion, we reverse the Third Circuit's judgement.

The opinion is unanimous.