This decision was issued less than two weeks after President Obama advocated repeal of DOMA. Is the Supreme Court signaling a way for the federal government to approach the chaos of state same-sex marriage laws in the alternative to DOMA?
The Capato case couldn’t have been a simple decision. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and the Ninth Circuit were divided on the issue. The Third Circuit reversed the federal district court in the case. However, a philosophically diverse Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision. Is this an intersection of the conservative states’ rights justices and the social progressives on the bench? Perhaps this is a subtle way to establish precedent for federal agencies to stay out of the fraught issue of deciding which marriages to recognize if DOMA is repealed.
Meaning of “Child”
In Capato, the technical issue was whether the biological child of a married couple is entitled to receive social security survivors benefits if the child was conceived after the death of the insured parent. The Act provides that every minor, unmarried child of a deceased wage earner, as defined by the Act, is entitled to survivors benefits. The Act states that the term “child” includes a “child or legally adopted child of an individual . . .” A later section directs that in determining whether an applicant is an individual’s child, the SSA shall apply the intestacy laws of the state in which the individual (that is, the alleged parent) was domiciled at the time of his death.
The applicants in Capato argued, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, that the SSA doesn’t need to resort to application of state intestacy law, unless the applicant’s parentage is somehow in doubt. InCapato, everyone agreed that the applicants were the biological children of the deceased wage earner and his widow. The Supreme Court, however, held that the term “child” can mean different things for different purposes and that biological parentage often isn’t determinative. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that it was reasonable for the SSA to apply state intestacy law to define “child” for purposes of survivors benefits in every case.
The applicants in Capato argued that it wasn’t fair for the SSA to rely on state intestacy laws, because the laws with respect to posthumous children vary greatly from state to state. Under application of state law, some posthumously conceived children would qualify for survivors benefits and some would not, simply based upon the parent’s state of domicile at death. The Supreme Court responded that, at worst, this would cause some applicants to receive benefits they weren’t intended to receive, but it wouldn’t deny benefits to anyone whom the Act was intended to assist.
According to the Supreme Court, the core purpose of the survivors benefit is to “provide . . . dependent members of [a wage earner’s] family with protection against the hardship occasioned by [the] loss of [the insured’s] earnings.” Posthumously conceived children are never financially dependent on their deceased parent. The fact that some posthumously conceived children may fit the definition of “child” under the intestacy laws of some states may cause the class of individuals receiving the survivors benefits to be over inclusive, but that problem was offset by the advantage of minimizing the administrative burden of proving financial dependency on a case-by-case basis.
Effect on Same-Sex Marriages
If DOMA were repealed, as the President recommends, does Capatocreate precedent for federal recognition of some same-sex marriages, based on administrative efficiency at the federal level? A unanimous Supreme Court couldn’t have been oblivious to that possibility.
1. Astrue v. Capato, No. 11-159 (Slip Opinion) (May 21, 2012).
2. John T. Brooks and Gregory F. Monday, “Posthumous Conception,” http://trustsandestates.com/wealth_watch/posthumous-conception-capato-astrue-supreme-court-0229/.