Friday, November 18, 2011
Too often the law -- and common sense -- lag behind science.
That seems to be the case with a law, written during the Great Depression, that makes clear Social Security benefits should be paid to the children of a deceased wage earner. What's changed since 1939 is that children can now be conceived through in vitro fertilization after the father has died.
The courts have been split on whether the children of deceased fathers are entitled to Social Security benefits. At least 100 claims are pending at the Social Security Administration.
But the issue could be resolved in the coming year as the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide a case with its roots in Washington state.
Karen Capato filed for Social Security benefits for her twin children who were born in 2003, about 18 months after her husband, Robert, died of cancer, according to the Los Angeles Times. The couple had married in Washington state in the late 1990s, later moving to Florida. Robert was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and decided to put his semen in a sperm bank for later use.
When Karen made a claim for benefits, it was denied by Social Security officials. They did not dispute her claim these were the children of Robert, but reasoned children who were not conceived at the time of a parent's death are not entitled to inherit his property.
Karen took the claim to court in New Jersey and eventually to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, where she prevailed. The judges in Philadelphia said that "undisputed biological children of a deceased wage earner and his widow are children" under the Social Security Act, and therefore are entitled to the benefits.
But two appeals courts in similar cases had ruled that children conceived through in vitro fertilization did not qualify for benefits.
Those courts got it right. When a single parent makes the choice to conceive a child through in vitro fertilization and then raise the child alone, the family should not be entitled to Social Security or other taxpayer-subsidized benefits.
Social Security was intended as a safety net. The benefits for children were intended to help families in crisis when a parent dies unexpectedly, leaving the surviving parent with the financial burden of raising the kids alone.
We would hope the high court rules with the intent of the law in mind.
But regardless of the way the court rules, Congress and state legislatures must address this issue to make sure the law has kept pace with technology.