Finley v. Astrue

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SUPREME COURT OF ARKANSAS  No.  07­627  AMY  FINLEY  O/B/O  HERSELF  AND  W.F., A MINOR CHILD,  PETITIONER,  VS.  MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER,  SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,  RESPONDENT,  Opinion Delivered January 10, 2008  UPON  CERTIFICATION  FROM  THE  UNITED  STATES  DISTRICT  COURT,  EASTERN  DISTRICT  OF  ARKANSAS,  LITTLE  ROCK  DIVISION,  CASE  NO.  4 : 0 6 C V 0 1 5 7 6   G T E / J T R ,   T H E  HONORABLE  GARNETT  THOMAS  EISELE, DISTRICT JUDGE  CERTIFIED QUESTION ANSWERED.  PAUL E. DANIELSON, Associate Justice  This  case  involves  a  question  of  law  certified  to  this  court  by  the  United  States  District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in accordance with Ark. Sup. Ct. R. 6­8  and accepted by this court on June 28, 2007.  See Finley v. Astrue, 370 Ark. 429, ___ S.W.3d  ___ (2007) (per curiam).  The question certified is the following:  Does  a  child,  who  was  created  as  an  embryo  through  in  vitro  fertilization  during his parents’ marriage, but implanted into his mother’s womb after the  death of his father, inherit from the father under Arkansas intestacy law as a  surviving child?  We conclude that the answer to this question is no.  According to the District Court’s order, the certified question arises from an appeal  by  Amy  Finley,  from  the  final  decision  of  the  Commissioner  of  the  Social  Security Administration, Michael Astrue (the Commissioner), which denied her claim for “child’s  1  insurance  benefits”  under  42  U.S.C.  §  402(d).  The  District  Court’s  order  reflects  the  following facts.  On October 6, 1990, Ms. Finley and Wade W. Finley, Jr., were married.  During the course of the marriage, the Finleys pursued fertility treatments at the University  of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), and, ultimately, participated in UAMS’s In Vitro  2  Fertilization and Embryo Transfer (IVF/ET) Program.  In June of 2001, doctors produced  ten embryos using Ms. Finley’s eggs and Mr. Finley’s sperm.  Two of the embryos were 1  The Commissioner’s order also denied Ms. Finley’s claim for “mother’s insurance  benefits” under 42 U.S.C. § 402(g).  2  In vitro fertilization is described as follows:  After  the  woman  has  taken  injectable  ovulation­inducing  medications . . ., multiple oocytes are retrieved from the woman’s ovaries by  a minor surgical procedure.  The oocytes are placed in a petri dish with her  male partner’s sperm (in vitro) and placed in an incubator for fertilization to  occur.  The embryos are allowed to grow for a period of three to five days  before they are placed back into the woman’s uterus.  17­289  Attorneys’ Textbook of Medicine P.289.65 (3d ed. 2007).  It differs entirely from  artificial insemination:  Intrauterine insemination, also known as artificial insemination, refers  to the placement of sperm into the uterine cavity.  Intrauterine insemination  may be performed at the time of ovulation in the woman’s normal menstrual  cycle, or with the use of medications that induce ovulation.  In most cases, the  female partner takes fertility medications in advance of the procedure.  The  man must produce sperm at the time the woman is ovulating; the sperm (after  undergoing certain “washing” procedures) are then inserted into the woman’s  uterine cavity through a long, thin catheter.  17­289 Attorney’s Textbook of Medicine P.289.81 (3d ed. 2007).  The District Court’s order further observes that in participating in the IVF/ET program  at UAMS, the Finleys executed a consent form.  That form is not before us; however, we  note that the Worker’s Compensation Commission awarded benefits to the child based, at  least  in  part,  on  the  consent  form’s  language.  See  Finley  v.  Farm  Cat,  Inc.,  WCC  No.  F108515 (Dec. 27, 2006).  ­2­  07­627  3  implanted into Ms. Finley’s uterus and four embryos were frozen for preservation.  Ms.  Finely later suffered a miscarriage of both of the implanted embryos.  On July 19, 2001, Mr. Finely died intestate while domiciled here in Arkansas.  A little  less than one year later, on June 26, 2002, Ms. Finley had two of the previously frozen  embryos  thawed  and  transferred  into  her  uterus,  resulting  in  a  single  pregnancy.  On  February 14, 2003, prior to the child’s birth, the Lonoke County Circuit Court entered an  order providing that upon the baby’s delivery,  the State Registrar of the Arkansas Department of Health, Division of Vital  Records,  shall  enter  and  state  upon  the  certificate  of  birth  that  Wade  W.  Finley, Jr., now deceased, is the father of [W.F.]; [a]nd that, thereafter, all  State and Federal Agencies, of the United States of America, shall uphold the  findings of this Court’s conclusion of paternity – in [Plaintiff] the mother and  Wade W. Finley, Jr. the father – for any and all lawful purposes; and, that  [W.F.] is the legitimate child of [Plaintiff] and Wade W. Finely, Jr. for any  and all lawful purposes.  The child was born on March 4, 2003, and on April 11, 2003, Ms. Finley filed a claim  for mother’s insurance benefits and the child’s claim for child’s insurance benefits, based on  the earnings record of Mr. Finley.  The claims were denied at the initial and reconsideration  levels; however, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision on June 16, 2006,  awarding both mother’s and child’s insurance benefits.  On December 14, 2006, the Appeals Council reversed the ALJ’s decision, finding that  Ms.  Finley’s  claims  were  without  merit.  Ms.  Finley  then  filed  her  complaint  with  the  District Court on October 13, 2006, appealing the final decision of the Commissioner.  The 3  The District Court’s order notes that the remaining four embryos were not preserved.  ­3­  07­627  parties filed a joint motion to certify the instant question of law to this court and to stay  briefing before the District Court. The District Court granted the motion, certified the instant  question to this court, and we accepted certification, as already stated.  In the briefs before us, Ms. Finley argues that her child was “conceived” at the time  her  egg  was  fertilized  by  the  father’s  sperm.    She  contends  that  there  is  no  statutory  prohibition in Arkansas preventing a natural child who was conceived by in vitro fertilization  from inheriting from his father.  She avers that the General Assembly was aware of in vitro  fertilization procedures in light of the fact that it mandated all accident and health insurance  companies include in vitro fertilization as a covered expense in Ark. Code Ann. § 23­85­  137(a) (Repl. 2004) and was aware of assisted reproductive technologies by its reference to  artificial insemination in Ark. Code Ann. § 28­9­209(c) (Repl. 2004).  She urges that based  upon the medical definitions of “conception,” the child born of the Finleys’ union was not  posthumously conceived and that as a matter of public policy, all children’s rights should be  protected, including their rights to property and inheritance.  The Commissioner responds that Arkansas intestacy law does not provide inheritance  rights from a biological father to a child who was created as an embryo through in vitro  fertilization during his parents’ marriage, but implanted into his mother’s womb after the  death of the father.  He argues that the Finleys’ child was neither born nor conceived during  the Finleys’ marriage, which ended upon Mr. Finley’s death.  The Commissioner maintains  that the logical interpretation of the term “conception” or “conceived,” as used in Arkansas’s  intestacy provisions, is to mean the onset of pregnancy, or the successful implantation of an ­4­  07­627  embryo in the womb.  He asserts that the General Assembly has not amended the intestate  succession statutes to expand the definition of conception to include the creation of embryos  during the in vitro fertilization process and that absent a statutory amendment to encompass  an IVF­created embryo, this court should conclude that the General Assembly did not intend  for such embryos to be considered “conceived” within the terms of the intestacy statutes.  He  further  points  out  that  the  General  Assembly,  and  not  the  courts,  determines  public  policy.    Finally,  the  Commissioner  submits,  given  the  fact  that  inheritance  laws  require  finality, it is unlikely that the legislature defined the term “conception” to include a medical  procedure that could result in a biological birth many years after the father’s death.  Ms.  Finley replies that the General Assembly has been well aware of assisted reproduction for  a number of years and, had it chosen to do so, it could have enacted legislation to prevent  such an inheritance.  A review of the benefits being sought and the orders leading to the certification of the  instant question was set forth in the District Court’s certification order.  It provides that  [u]nder the Social Security Act, a child is entitled to child’s insurance benefits  if he is the child of an individual who dies  while  insured, if the child was  dependent upon the insured at the time of the insured’s death.  See 42 U.S.C.  §  402(d).  “Child”  means  “the  child  or  legally  adopted  child  of  an  individual[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 416(c).  In determining whether a claimant is the  “child” of a deceased insured, the Commissioner is instructed to “apply such  law as would be applied in determining the devolution of intestate personal  property . . . by the courts of the State in which [the insured] was domiciled  at  the  time  of  his  death[.]”  42  U.S.C.  §  416(h)(2)(A).    Social  Security  regulations provide further guidance on determining “child” status, including  that  a  claimant  be  the  insured’s  “natural  child,”  meaning that  the  claimant  “could inherit the insured’s personal property as his or her natural child under  State inheritance law[s].”  See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.354 and 404.355(a)(1).  In ­5­  07­627  deciding whether the claimant has “inheritance rights as the natural child of  the insured[,]” the Commissioner uses “the law on inheritance rights that the  State courts would use to decide whether you could inherit a child’s share of  the insured’s personal property if the insured were to die without leaving a  will.”  See 20 C.F.R. § 404.355(b)(1).  During the administrative proceedings in this case, Plaintiff claimed  that there were no Arkansas statutes specifically addressing the inheritance  rights of a child conceived through in vitro fertilization, but that, pursuant to  Ark. Code Ann. § 28­9­209(c), W.F. was “conceived” as a “zygote” prior to  his father’s death, while his parents were married.  Thus, she argued that W.F.  had inheritance rights under that statute. The Commissioner acknowledged the  lack of  a  “clear  definition”  of  “conception”  under  Arkansas  state  law,  but  looked  to  “the  generally  accepted  definition  of  the  term  in  the  medical  community” and concluded that “conception” occurred when “the embryo was  implanted  in  [Plaintiff’s]  uterus  after  the  wage  earner  died.”  The  Commissioner also rejected Plaintiff’s reliance on both Ark. Code Ann. § 11­  9­507, a worker’s compensation statute which does not “govern inheritance  issues,” and the Lonoke Circuit Court Order, which was “not consistent with  the law as enunciated by the highest court in the State of Arkansas.”  According to the Commissioner’s findings: (1) W.F. was the biological  child of Wade W. Finley, Jr. who was not married to Plaintiff at the time that  W.F. was conceived or born; and (2) W.F. did not have “inheritance rights in  [Wade W. Finley, Jr.’s] estate” and thus did “not have status as the child of the  wage  earner  pursuant  to  [42  U.S.C.  §  416(h)(2)(A)].”  Because  Plaintiff’s  claim for “mother’s insurance benefits” was contingent on having “an entitled  child of the wage earner in her care,” the Commissioner found that this claim  also lacked merit.  (Internal footnotes and citations to transcript omitted.)  Having been presented with the instant question, we turn to our statutes on intestate  succession.  Title 28, Chapter 9 of the Arkansas Code Annotated sets forth Arkansas’s law  on intestate succession, entitled the “Arkansas Inheritance Code of 1969.”  Arkansas Code  Annotated § 28­9­203(a) (Repl. 2004) provides that “[a]ny part of the estate of a decedent  not effectively disposed of by his or her will shall pass to his or her heirs as prescribed in the  following sections.”  Ark. Code Ann. § 28­9­203(a) (Repl. 2004). ­6­  07­627  4  The instant certified question presents a posthumous child.  In order to inherit as a  posthumous  heir  under  Arkansas  law,  the  child  must  not  only  have  been  born  after  the  decedent’s death, but must also have been conceived before the decedent’s death:  (a) Posthumous descendants of the intestate conceived before his or her  death but born thereafter shall inherit in the same manner as if born in the  lifetime of the intestate.  Ark.  Code  Ann.  §  28­9­210(a)  (Repl.  2004)  (emphasis  added).    In  order  to  answer  the  question  certified  to  this  court,  we  must,  then,  determine  whether  a  child,  created  as  an  embryo through in vitro fertilization during the child’s parents’ marriage, but implanted into  the child’s mother’s womb after the death of the child’s father, was “conceived before” the  decedent’s death.  This requires us to construe section 28­9­210(a).  The basic rule of statutory construction is to give effect to the intent of the legislature.  See McMickle v. Griffin, 369 Ark. 318, ___ S.W.3d ___ (2007).  Where the language of a  statute is plain and unambiguous, we determine legislative intent from the ordinary meaning  of the language used.  See id.  In considering the meaning of a statute, we construe it just as  it reads, giving the words their ordinary and usually accepted meaning in common language.  See id.  We construe the statute so that no word is left void, superfluous or insignificant, and  we give meaning and effect to every word in the statute, if possible.  See id.  Furthermore,  we are very hesitant to interpret a legislative act in a manner contrary to its express language, 4  While our statutory code does not define this term, Black’s Law Dictionary defines  the  term  “posthumous  child”  as:  “A  child  born  after  a  parent’s  death.”  Black’s  Law  Dictionary 255 (8th ed. 2004).  ­7­  07­627  unless it is clear that a drafting error or omission has circumvented legislative intent.  See  Arkansas Beverage Retailers Ass’n, Inc. v. Moore, 369 Ark. 498, ___ S.W.3d ___ (2007).  It is clear from the statute that in order to inherit through intestate succession as a  posthumous descendant, the child must have been conceived before the decedent’s death.  However, the statutory scheme fails to define the term “conceived.”  While we could define  that term, we find there is no need  to do so, as we can definitively say that the General  Assembly, in enacting Act 303 of 1969, § 12, now codified at Ark. Code Ann. § 28­9­210,  did not intend for the statute to permit a child, created through  in  vitro fertilization and  implanted after the father’s death, to inherit under intestate succession.  Not only does the  instant statute fail to specifically address such a scenario, but it was enacted in 1969, which  was well before the technology of in vitro fertilization was developed.  See Janet L. Dolgin,  Surrounding Embryos: Biology, Ideology, & Politics, 16 HEALTH MATRIX: J.L. & MED. 27  (2006) (observing that the first birth resulting from in vitro fertilization was in 1978).  See  also Dena S. Davis, The Puzzle of IVF, 6 HOUS. J. HEALTH L. &POL’Y 275 (2006) (observing  that the first successful birth of a child from a cryopreserved embryo was in 1984).  Both of the interested parties in this case cite to several decisions by both federal and  state courts involving at least similar issues.  See Khabbaz v. Commissioner, 930 A.2d 1180  (N.H. 2007) (holding that a child conceived after her father’s death via artificial insemination  was not a “surviving issue” under New Hampshire intestacy law and, thus, was not eligible  to receive a portion of her father’s estate); Stephen v. Commissioner of Social Security, 386  F. Supp. 2d 1257 (M.D. Fla. 2005) (holding that the Commissioner properly determined that ­8­  07­627  the  child  was  not  entitled  to  child’s  survivor  benefits,  where  under  Florida  law,  a  child  conceived from the sperm of a person who died before the transfer of sperm to a woman’s  body was not eligible for a claim against the decedent’s estate unless the child was provided  for  by  the  decedent’s  will);  Gillett­Netting  v.  Barnhart,  371  F.3d  593  (9th  Cir.  2004)  (holding that because the children, both of whom were the result of in vitro fertilization of  the mother’s eggs by the decedent’s sperm after his death, were the decedent’s legitimate  children under Arizona law, they were deemed dependent under 42 U.S.C. § 402(d) and did  not  need  to  demonstrate  actual  dependency  nor  deemed  dependency  under  42  U.S.C.  §  416(h)); Woodward v. Commissioner of Social Security, 435 Mass. 536, 760 N.E.2d 257  (2002)  (holding  that  where  the  surviving  parent  or  the  child’s  other  legal  representative  demonstrates a genetic relationship between  the  posthumously reproduced child and the  decedent,  and  where  the  survivor  or  representative  establishes  both  that  the  decedent  affirmatively consented to posthumous conception and to the support of any resulting child,  the child may enjoy the inheritance rights of “issue” under Massachusetts’s intestacy law,  so long as time limitations do not preclude the commencement of succession rights on behalf  of the child).  While those opinions appear thoughtful and well­reasoned under each state’s  respective  code  provisions  or  lack  thereof,  they  are  of  no  assistance  in  interpreting  our  specific Arkansas statute.  In addition, both parties discuss Ark. Code Ann. § 28­9­209(c)  (Repl. 2004), which provides:  (c) Any child conceived following artificial insemination of a married  woman with the consent of her husband shall be treated as their child for all  purposes of intestate succession.  Consent of the husband is presumed unless ­9­  07­627  the contrary is shown by clear and convincing evidence.  Ark.  Code  Ann.  §  28­9­209(c).    That  statute  is  inapposite  for  two  reasons.    First  and  foremost, the statute goes to the legitimacy of a child, and, second, it specifically references  artificial  insemination,  not  in  vitro  fertilization,  which,  as  already  noted  in  the  footnote  above, are two completely different procedures.  While the parties would have us define the term “conceive,” we decline to do so in  the instant case.  Our role is not to create the law, but to interpret the law and to give effect  to the legislature’s intent.  See, e.g., Miller v. Tatum, 170 Ark. 152, 279 S.W. 1002 (1926);  Williams v. Buchanan, 86 Ark. 259, 110 S.W. 1024 (1908).  In vitro fertilization and other  methods of assisted reproduction are new technologies that have created new legal issues not  addressed by already­existing law.  See, e.g., Gillett­Netting v. Barnhart, supra (observing  that  “[d]eveloping  reproductive  technology  has  outpaced  federal  and  state  laws,  which  currently  do  not  address  directly  the  legal  issues  created  by  posthumous  conception”);  Woodward  v.  Commissioner  of  Social  Security,  supra  (observing  that  “with  the  act  of  procreation now separated from coitus, posthumous reproduction can occur under a variety  of conditions that may conflict with the purposes of the intestacy law and implicate other  firmly established State and individual interests”).  Were we to define the term “conceive,”  we would be making a determination that would implicate many public policy concerns,  including, but certainly not limited  to,  the finality of estates.  That is not our role.  The  determination of public policy lies almost exclusively with the legislature, and we will not  interfere with that determination in the absence of palpable errors.  See Jordan v. Atlantic ­10­  07­627  Cas. Ins. Co., 344 Ark. 81, 40 S.W.3d 254 (2001).  With this is mind, we strongly encourage  the  General  Assembly  to  revisit  the  intestacy  succession  statutes  to  address  the  issues  involved in the instant case and those that have not but will likely evolve.  For the foregoing reasons, we answer the certified question in the negative. ­11­  07­627