In a case at the intersection of law and modern reproductive technology, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that state inheritance laws will determine whether children conceived after their fathers’ death are eligible for Social Security survivors benefits.

The justices in a unanimous decision said twins conceived by Karen Capato through in vitro fertilization after her husband’s death from cancer did not qualify for survivor benefits because of Florida’s intestacy law.

In Astrue v. Capato, the justices examined the interplay of several sections of the Social Security Act. Although Robert and Karen Capato’s children met the definition of “child” under act, the Court found they did not meet the act’s requirements for family status in order to qualify for survivor benefits. One of those requirements was whether the children could inherit under the intestacy law of their father’s residence at death.

Robert Capato died in Florida and that state’s intestacy law permits children born posthumously to inherit only if conceived during the decedent’s lifetime.

The high court ruling overturns a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

Writing for the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the Social Security Act commonly refers to state law on matters of family status. Reliance on state intestacy law to determine who is a “child” for survivors benefits, she added, serves Congress’ main aim: to provide dependent members of a wage earner’s family with protection against the hardship caused by the loss of the earnings.

In her summary from the bench, Ginsburg said, “We find the Social Security Administration’s ruling better attuned to the statute’s text and its design to benefit primarily those the deceased wage earner actually supported in his or her lifetime,” Ginsburg said. “And even if the agency’s longstanding interpretation is not the only reasonable one, it is at least a permissible construction entitled to deference.”

There are reportedly more than 100 applications for survivor benefits pending from posthumously conceived children.

In other business, the justices have stepped into another post-Sept. 11 controversy by granting review in Clapper v. Amnesty International, a challenge involving the constitutionality of 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The amendments expanded the National Security Agency’s authority to conduct electronic surveillance of foreign nationals’ communications.

The question before the justices is whether Amnesty International and a group of lawyers, journalists and others, who fear the wiretapping will capture confidential communications by Americans, have Article III standing to go forward with their constitutional challenge.

“The appeals court properly recognized that our clients have a reasonable basis to fear that the government may be monitoring their conversations, even though it has no reason to suspect them of having engaged in any unlawful activities,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director and lead counsel in the case, in a statement. “The constitutionality of the government’s surveillance powers can and should be tested in court. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree.”

The case will be heard next term.

Marcia Coyle can be contacted at