Yet another opinion involving the social security entitlements of a posthumously conceived child has been issued. (You can find the actual opinion at that first link if you search for the name “Beeler.”) I’ve written about this several times before as it is a recurrent problem. I’m beginning to think that we might see the Supreme Court take one of these cases soon as the issue does arise with some frequency.
Bruce and Patty Beeler lived in Iowa. Bruce Beeler died from leukemia in May 2001. Before he died, he and his wife decided to have some of his sperm frozen. Beeler’s wife, Patty, used the sperm to concieve in July 2002 and a daughter was born in April 2003. Patty applied for social security benefits–those that would be granted to a surviving child of Bruce Beeler. The district court granted her request but in the most recent opinion the 8th Circuit says “no.”
As a part of the planning for the child, Bruce Beeler signed various documents before his death. He bequeathed the stored sperm to his wife, to be used to conceive a child. He also filed an acknowledgement of paternity–though of course at the time it was signed, there were no children in existence.
There’s a couple of things going on here. In general social security follows state law. If you are a parent under the laws of Iowa, that’s good enough for them. The law at the relevant time in this case did not recognize parentage for posthumous children, and thus, Patty Beeler loses. (Iowa has since changed its law, but the change is not retroactive.)
But the court also raises a broader question that I find interesting–one which I don’t think I’ve mentioned before. Rather than get caught up in the technicalities of administrative law, I will just try to sketch it out.
Is there any reason why the law might distinguish between a child conceived before the death of a man who would clearly have been her father but born after his death and a child who is conceived after the death of the man in question? After reading the opinion, I think there is.
If child is conceived before the death of the man, then generally speaking the operating assumptions at the time of conception are that he’ll be around to help support her. If it turns out he is not, because he dies during the pregnancy (and if he’s been paying into social security), then perhaps social security ought to step in to try to feel the unexpected void. (I say this even though there will be cases where the conception is after it is pretty clear the man will not survive. In the majority of the cases in this category, the death will have been unexpected.)
If by contrast a child is conceived after the man has died, then there cannot have been any expectation at the time of conception that he’d help support the child. Instead, the person or people contemplating conception proceeded knowing full well he would not be there. Thus, there’s no unfulfilled expectation for social security to step into.
I realize you could say if they thought they’d get social security, then they might have thought there would be support. But it seems to me thinking you’ll get social security isn’t the same as thinking the man will be around. And of course, if a clear rule is announced, people would know exactly what to expect and not to expect in posthumous conception cases.
I do not say that this is the right answer, but it seems to me a point to think about. Do we want to encourage and support people to do posthumous conception? If so, why? At the very least, it seems to me that the distinction based on date of conception (pre or post death) is an interesting one to consider.
And surely we have to draw a line somewhere. We know that sperm can be frozen for 20 years or possibly more. How many posthumous children could a man have?