Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 7, 2009
Our View - Update Iowa's inheritance law for 21st century
A federal judge recently ruled that 6-year-old Brynn Beeler of West Branch is entitled to her father's Social Security benefits even though her father died two years before she was born.
That's long overdue good news for the Beeler family, but it also highlights how the Iowa Legislature needs to update the state's inheritance laws for the 21st century.
"We're the first in Iowa, but we won't be the last," said Patti Beeler, Brynn's mother. "You either deal with it now, or a year or 10 years later when there are more cases."
When Brynn was born six years ago, Patti knew that Brynn's father would not be a daily presence in the child's life. But she also knew the father wanted to have children -- and wanted to have children with her. (Patti's husband, Bruce Beeler, had died of leukemia on May 4, 2001 -- nearly two years before Brynn was born.)
The couple had been planning to marry on Memorial Day weekend in 2001. And when Bruce discovered he would have to undergo chemotherapy, he banked sperm before beginning his treatments so that he and Patti could have children after he recovered.
After Bruce's condition grew worse rather than better -- and after doctors determined that his leukemia would require a bone marrow transplant -- the couple bumped up their wedding date to December 2000. Because the procedure came with only a 50 percent chance of survival, Bruce began making funeral arrangements and signed a number of forms granting Patti the legal right to use his sperm to conceive children in the event of his death.
After Bruce died, Patti underwent intrauterine insemination in July 2002. It was a decision supported by Bruce's parents, Ken and Mildred Beeler, who now live next door to Patti and her daughter in West Branch. Patti became pregnant on the first try, and nine months later Brynn was born.
Now Brynn is one of a small number of cases of posthumously conceived children who are applying for survivor benefits from Social Security.
"You can probably count the cases on both hands," University of Iowa law professor Sheldon Kurtz said earlier this year. "The concern is that over time we are going to start seeing more and more of these cases. It would be a good thing, before we get too far along, if we have laws to address this specific issue."
Kurtz is one of three Iowans on the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, a group working to have states update and harmonize their laws concerning probate and inheritance when it comes to children conceived through artificial means. Making those laws more uniform is important because Social Security, although a federal program, defers to state law when determining whether a child can be considered an heir.
Most state laws were written long before posthumous conception was a possibility. And few states that have updated their laws vary widely in terms of the limitations they place on when and whether such children can be considered heirs.
Iowa's laws on the matter, for example, are basically as old as the state. Because those laws don't provide any language on the specifics in a case such as the Beeler's, good empathetic judges can come to completely different conclusions about how the 19th-century legal language and 20th-century precedents apply to 21st-century reproductive technology.
In Brynn's case, Social Security determined that she could not be considered an heir under Iowa law and thus her claim was denied. The recent ruling stands to set legal precedent in the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which covers Iowa, Arkansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Social Security Administration has until Jan. 11, 2010, to appeal.
We think the Iowa Legislature should consider the model legislation proposed by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws as a starting point for updating the state laws. On the question of posthumous conception, Kurtz said, the conference suggests a compromise that would allow a child be considered an heir if the father gave his consent to the process before he died -- as Bruce Beeler did.
But however people come down on when and whether children like Brynn should be able to be considered heirs, all the stakeholders agree that the state laws must be clarified before more and more grieving families get caught up within this bureaucratic and legal confusion.