DETROIT (AP) - The birth of twins after artificial insemination brought joy to a southwestern Michigan woman whose husband had died just months earlier.
Eleven years later, courts still are trying to determine whether the children qualify for thousands of dollars in public aid.
The Social Security Administration is refusing to grant survivor benefits to the children because they were conceived with Jeff Mattison's frozen sperm after his death in 2001. The government says Michigan law is clear: It doesn't recognize heirs who weren't alive when a parent died.
But the law has never been tested in court. So the Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday on whether the government's interpretation is correct. The decision will help a federal judge settle the dispute.
Victor Bland, an attorney for Pam Mattison, acknowledged that they face an "uphill climb." Michigan law says the estate of the deceased passes to heirs who are living. There is an exception for a child being carried by a pregnant woman at the time of death, but that doesn't fit these circumstances.
"No one is saying they aren't his kids," Bland said this week, ahead of arguments Thursday.
"I don't know why there should be a difference between these two kids and the oldest child who is already receiving these benefits," he said. "Maybe the law doesn't reflect where we're at with reproductive technologies. Their conception was a process, not a one-time event."
Jeff Mattison, of Portage, who had lupus, high blood pressure and kidney failure, stopped taking certain medication at times so he could store his sperm without risk of passing on defects. On the day before his death, he injected his wife with medication for eventual harvest of her eggs for artificial insemination, Bland said.
Pam Mattison subsequently went through in-vitro fertilization with her late husband's sperm, and the twins, now 11, were born in 2001, nine months after Jeff Mattison's death. He had signed a legal document in 1998 allowing his wife to take "any and all action" with sperm that had been frozen and stored.
Pam Mattison, 48, didn't return a phone message seeking comment.
Marlaine Teahan, a Lansing lawyer who specializes in estate law, predicts the federal government will prevail.
"Michigan statutes talk about a surviving person. You have to survive the decedent" to be an heir, she said.
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Social Security Administration in a similar case from Florida, although that decision is not binding on the state Supreme Court. This case specifically focuses on a Michigan law.
Bland said the children, Mallory and Michael, might be eligible for $200 to $500 a month, retroactive to their birth.
"She had some life insurance from her husband, but this would help. They're middle-class people," Bland said of the Mattison family.