Massachusetts First on Modern Conception and Inheritance


If a husband and wife “bank” sperm so that the wife may conceive artificially, and the wife conceives through insemination of this sperm after the husband dies, will children resulting from such a pregnancy enjoy the inheritance rights of “natural” children in Massachusetts?

Last week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court answered this question of law at the request of the federal District Court, holding that children conceived after their biological father’s death have the same rights to inherit as children conceived naturally if the genetic relationship is established and then proof is given that the deceased parent consented to the conception and to the support of the resulting children. Woodward v. Commissioner of Social Security (1/02/02) is the first published opinion of its kind in the country.

In 1993, Warren Woodward was diagnosed with and died from leukemia. He and his wife, Lauren, “banked” sperm before his treatment started given the likelihood of sterility thereafter. In late 1995, Ms. Woodward gave birth to twin girls conceived through artificial insemination of Mr. Woodward’s sperm.

Ms. Woodward applied for but was denied federal Social Security “child’s” and “mother’s” benefits in 1996. Despite a probate and family court adjudication of paternity, SSA denied the claim. Ms. Woodward asked the federal District Court to order release of the benefits, and that Court asked the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to decide the legal question.

The Massachusetts high court finds middle ground between Ms. Woodward’s view that all children conceived posthumously should inherit under state law, and the government’s view that, since such children do not exist at the time of the parent’s death, they should be strictly denied the right to inherit.

The Woodward court embraces foremost the legislature’s concern that all children get the same rights and treatment under the law regardless of ‘accidents of birth.’ The Court reasons that children conceived posthumously should be entitled to the same rights to financial support as are children conceived before a parent’s death. However, the Woodward Court also weighs the state’s interest in timely administration of estates as well its interest in insuring the integrity of the decedent’s reproductive rights. The Court speculates that limitations periods for paternity claims against estates may affect claims from posthumously conceived children. The Court also emphasizes that genetic paternity alone is not enough; the deceased parent must have had some intent to have and to support children.

Arizona has no precedent to guide similar questions. Medical technology will continue to challenge a slow-moving legal system in all states unless state legislatures take the initiative.

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