To be poor and independent is very nearly an impossibility.
William Cobbett, Advice to Young Men, 1829
On May 21, 2012, the Supreme Court decided the case of Astrue v. Capato. This case may have consequences beyond the question the Court decided based on its deferral to state law.
Karen Capato, widow of Robert Capato, was artificially inseminated nine months after her husband’s death. She delivered twins and applied for Social Security survivors benefits for them.
The Social Security Administrator, Michael Astrue, declined to pay, citing Florida intestate law that 1) declares a marriage is over at the death of one of the spouses and 2) that posthumously conceived children are not intestate heirs.
Mrs. Capato pointed to 42 U.S.C.S. 402(d) which states that "[e]very child (as defined in section 416(e) of this title" of a deceased insured individual "shall be entitled to a child’s insurance benefit." Section 416(e), in turn, defines "child" to mean: "(1) the child or legally adopted child of an individual, (2) a stepchild . . . and (3) . . . the grandchild or stepgrandchild of an individual or his spouse . . ."
Mrs. Capato prevailed at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Commissioner appealed to the Supreme Court.
At that point, it looked like Mrs. Capato would prevail. But wait, there’s more. Section 416(h)(2)(A) further addresses the term "child." "In determining whether an applicant is the child or parent 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]."
Thus, there are two definitions of "child" in the Code, one loosely defined and one that defers to state law. One might see another 5-4 decision brewing but the decision was for the Commissioner 9-0. Unanimous!
Reasoning was that even though state intestacy laws vary from state to state, it was better to let a few more people qualify for benefits and leave the decision out of the federal government’s hands than to restrict benefits but increase the workload of determining who is a child in every single case.
Also considered was Congress’s intention to "provide dependent members of a [wage earner’s] family with protection against the hardship occasioned by the loss of [the insured’s] earnings." Since posthumously conceived children never were dependent on those earnings, it stands to reason that their income should not be insured unless state law happens to include them.
In the end, the Court observed: "The SSA’s interpretation of the relevant provisions, adhered to without deviation for many decades, is at least reasonable; the agency’s reading is therefore entitled to this Court’s deference . . . "
The possible fallout is that if the Supreme Court decided to refer to state law in this case even through state intestacy laws vary, it might be obliged to defer to state laws that define a marriage.
What if the Defense of Marriage Act is repealed as the President has requested? Does Capato open the door for recognition of some same-sex marriages depending on individual state law? Remember, this was a 9-0 decision. Some, and maybe all, of the Justices had to be aware of that possibility.