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Child conceived through in vitro after father’s death will not receive his Social Security benefits, court rules

A West Branch girl conceived through in vitro fertilization two years following her father’s death is not eligible to receive his Social Security benefits, according to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 2000, as Bruce and Patti Beeler prepared for their wedding following year, the couple learned that Bruce was ill with acute leukemia. He was advised to undergo chemotherapy and, before beginning such treatment, the couple banked semen as a precaution against the possible side-effect of sterility.

When Bruce’s medical condition continued to deteriorate, he and Patti filed the necessary legal forms so that she could have access to and use his semen for the purpose of reproduction. Bruce died on May 4, 2001, at the age of 37. More than a year later, in July 2002, Patti conceived a child through artificial insemination. Their daughter, who remains anonymous in court records, was born in April 2003.

While there is no dispute that Bruce is the biological father of the child, and despite the fact that he signed legal documents acknowledging that he would “accept … child support responsibility for any … child or children,” when Patti applied for the girl’s benefits through the Social Security Administration in June, she was denied. The agency’s Appeals Council took up the case and determined that the couple’s daughter “is not the child of the wage earner within the meaning of the Social Security Act and is not entitled to benefits.”

The Social Security Act, established in 1935, was amended by Congress in 1939 to include benefit payments to the family members of deceased wage earners, but only under certain conditions. The federal government contends that the Beeler child did not meet the criteria that asserts that a minor must be dependent upon the wage earner at the time of the parent’s death.

Patti then moved the case into the legal system. The court’s Monday opinion (embedded below) reversed a 2009 ruling that had granted the now 8-year-old child access to her father’s survivor benefits through the Social Security Administration.

The family could not be reached for comment.

“The death of Bruce Beeler at a relatively young age before he and Patti Beeler could conceive children is profoundly sad,” wrote the Appellate Court. “But whether the granting of child’s insurance benefits to [their offspring], a posthumously conceived child, would further purposes of the Social Security Act is debatable, given the Act’s ‘basic aim of primarily helping those children who lost support after the unanticipated death of a parent.’ … It is unlikely that Members of Congress contemplated this precise question when enacting the relevant provisions of the Act in the 1930s and 1960s.

“At a minimum, however, the Act permits the longstanding position of the SSA, if the Act does not require it. As the law now stands, it resolves the question of eligibility for child’s insurance benefits by reference to state intestacy law, and Iowa law did not provide [the Beeler's child] with intestacy at the time of the agency’s final decision in this litigation.”

This spring Gov. Terry Branstad signed the “Posthumous Conception Bill” into law. It changes state rules to establish inheritance rights for children, like Beeler’s. Since the law did not include any retroactive provisioning, however, the 8th Circuit found it was not applicable in this case, which began long before the new Iowa statute was written.

Beeler v. Astrue

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