4th Circuit: Mom can’t collect benefits for child born in vitro years after dad died

Schafer v. Astrue, No. 10-1500 (4th Cir. April 12, 2011)

Don and Janice Schafer married in 1992. Don died the next year. With the help of in vitro fertilization, however, Janice gave birth to W.M.S., Don Schafer’s biological child, a number of years later. Janice Schafer then applied on W.M.S.’s behalf for survivorship benefits under the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(d) et seq.

The Social Security Administration rejected W.M.S.’s claim. Because under its view natural children must be able to inherit from the decedent under state intestacy law or satisfy certain exceptions to that requirement in order to count as “children” under the Act, W.M.S. was not eligible for survivorship benefits. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(h)(2), (h)(3)(C). The district court agreed. On appeal, Schafer contends that undisputed natural children such as W.M.S. plainly fall within 42 U.S.C. § 416(e)(1)’s basic definition of “child,” making their state intestacy rights irrelevant.

We shall affirm the judgment. The agency’s view best reflects the statute’s text, structure, and aim of providing benefits primarily to those who unexpectedly lose a wage earner’s support. And even if the agency’s interpretation were not the only reasonable one, it falls well within the range of permissible readings entitled to deference under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984).