Another Challenge to Married Man’s Will Nixed

A New York County Surrogate Court judge has ruled that the late H. Kenneth Ranftle was domiciled in New York at the time of his death, rejecting a challenge to the probating of his will brought by his brother, Ronald Ranftle, who argued that Ken was a Florida domiciliary.

Ranftle’s domicile at death was important because his marriage to J. Craig Leiby is recognized under New York law, but not be by Florida. Leiby’s status as sole distributee and as executor of the estate therefore hinges on that determination.

Judge Kristin Booth Glen’s September 14 ruling highlights the issues faced by same-sex partners –– including those who can now marry in New York –– in a mobile society where families move from state to state or invest in property in other states, given that most states do not recognize marriages by gay and lesbian couples.

Ranftle owned a house in Ft. Lauderdale and, in 2003, took steps to establish domicile there, primarily for tax purposes. Glen noted the lack of a personal income tax in Florida, also observing, “there are capital gains and property tax advantages and a significant homestead exemption” available to those domiciled there. Although Ranftle and Leiby spent a large part of the year living together in the apartment they jointly owned on West 13th Street in Manhattan, as well as at property they had on Fire Island and in Montreal, Ranftle was careful to maintain his Florida domiciliary status by documenting he spent at least 183 days there in each tax year.

However, when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in March 2008, Ranftle decided to remain in New York City, never returning to the Florida house through the time of his death on November 1 of that year.

During that same period, an upstate appeals court established a statewide precedent that legal same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions must be recognized in New York, and shortly thereafter Governor David Paterson issued a directive instructing state agencies to comply with that ruling. As a result of these developments, Ranftle proposed marriage to Leiby, his long-time partner, and they traveled to Montreal, where they owned an apartment, marrying there on June 7.

In tandem with their marriage, Ranftle made a new will, though his attorney made an unfortunate slip-up on it, cutting and pasting language from his earlier will asserting his domicile in Florida. Ranftle did not bother to change his driver’s license, and actually cast an absentee ballot in Florida in the November 2008 general election before he died.

When Leiby presented Ranftle’s will for probate following his death, Surrogate Glen concluded that as the surviving spouse, he was the sole distributee and there was no need to notify other surviving relatives. Leiby was the executor and main beneficiary under the will.

Another one of Ranftle’s brothers, Richard, sought to intervene in the case, challenging Leiby’s spousal status, and took that challenge to the Appellate Division, which affirmed Glen’s ruling that the marriage would be recognized in the probate context in New York. Ranftle’s other brother, Ronald, then brought a second challenge, contending that Leiby was not qualified to be sole distributee and executor because Florida law controlled the situation.

Glen’s detailed opinion, issued on September 14 and published by the New York Law Journal on September 23, concluded that Ranftle was a New York domiciliary at his death. “Based on the testimony of the witnesses,” she wrote, “especially Craig, Ken’s accountant, and Ken’s attorney, I find by clear and convincing evidence that some time in 2008, probably at or around the time of his terminal diagnosis, but no later than his marriage, Ken formed the intent to abandon his Florida domicile and to re-establish his domicile in New York where his friends, family, and beloved spouse were located. He did so for two reasons: to be with those he loved, in the city where he had lived and prospered, in the commodious apartment he and his husband owned together, and had lived in since 1999; and because New York, unlike Florida, had expressed its willingness to recognize and respect his relationship with –– and marriage to –– Craig. It is significant that, following his diagnosis, Ken never returned to Florida, even while taking steps to protect Craig’s interest in the only property he owned there.”

Glen also concluded that the reference to a Florida domicile in Ranftle’s final will was in fact a cut-and-paste slip-up, a “scrivener’s error.” His decision to cast his vote in Florida, she concluded, was “an anomaly insufficient to overcome the otherwise compelling evidence that Ken chose to become, became, and died a domiciliary of New York.”

In a particularly compelling passage, Glen continued, “In considering the ‘association and interests’” that courts consider in determining issues of domicile, “there is one additional compelling fact. Ken was a proud gay man who treasured –– and sought in every way available to protect –– his husband Craig, and Craig’s rights upon his death… [S]ince, as Ken well knew, Florida would not recognize his marriage… failing to change his domicile would have ‘thwarted his wish’ to have Craig serve as his executor.”

The continuing patchwork system of marriage recognition is intolerable, which helps to explain why the effort to repeal DOMA continues to pick up support in Congress, including the recent addition of the first Republican co-sponsor in the House of Representatives –– ironically, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents portions of Dade and Monroe Counties in Florida.

Leiby was represented in defending probate of the will by attorneys Kevin J. Farrelly and Erica Bell from the firm of Weiss, Buell & Bell.

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