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In-Laws Can’t Block Gay Widower’s Inheritance

(CN) - A New York appeals court shot down the second challenge to a will by brothers of a gay man who named his husband as executor.

H. Kenneth Ranftle died of a sudden heart attack in November 2008. Earlier that year, Ranftle had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and married his longtime partner, J. Craig Leiby, in Canada where gay marriage had been legal since 2005. New York, where the couple had lived together since 1990, did not pass its Marriage Equality Act until 2011. Leiby said Ranftle had proposed as soon as New York Gov. David Paterson issued an executive directive that required the state's agencies to recognize same-sex marriages that had been validly contracted in other jurisdictions.

In his last will and testament, the 65-year-old Ranftle made bequests to his three brothers and a goddaughter, leaving the remainder of his estate to Leiby.

When the Surrogate's Court in Manhattan granted Leiby's petition for probate, one of Ranftle's brothers insisted that recognition of the same-sex marriage violated public policy in New York.

The Surrogate's Court tossed Richard Ranftle's objection, and the Appellate Division's First Department affirmed in 2011, but Leiby soon faced another challenge from another of his husband's brothers.

Ronald Ranftle's challenge alleged that Leiby's husband was actually a Florida resident thereby stripping the New York-based Surrogate's Court of jurisdiction.

Though Leiby's husband had been born in New York City and lived most of his life there, he also owned a house in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and changed his domicile to the Sunshine State for tax purposes in 2003.

The court found nevertheless that Ranftle spent just 13 days in Florida before his cancer diagnosis and never returned after it.

That year Ranftle also applied for Social Security from that New York address, shipped his car from Florida to New York, and designated the New York address on his investment accounts and tax documents.

Ranftle died before he could file taxes that year, but his accountant testified that he planned to file as a New York resident.

In Ranftle and Leiby's declaration of marriage, they both stated that their "domicile after the marriage" would be the New York City condominium they co-owned.

Before they married, Ranftle had also regularly commuted to be with Leiby in New York, where he also retained his concert and theater subscriptions, the court found.

In addition to continually donating to New York City institutions, Ranftle also saw a financial adviser, doctors and other professionals in New York City.

The Surrogate's Court was not swayed by the fact that Ranftle's will listed Florida as his address; that his driver's licenses and car registration were in Florida; and that Ranftle had cast a Florida absentee ballot in the 2008 presidential election.

The Appellate Division affirmed, 3-1, last week.

"We agree with the Surrogate that Leiby met his burden of proof as to the change of domicile," the unsigned opinion states. "As noted, petitioner's scattered evidence that Ranftle remained a Florida domiciliary is overwhelmed by the large and consistent body of evidence showing that Ranftle moved back to the New York City apartment he shared with his husband with the intent of permanently remaining there, and that his change of domicile was motivated both by his grave illness and New York's recognition of same-sex marriages."

Justice John Sweeny Jr. dissented, stating that Leiby did not prove that Ranftle lived in New York at the time of his death.

"Given decedent's meticulousness in preparing and maintaining records to prove and maintain his Florida domicile, his failure to take obvious actions that would demonstrate an unequivocal intention to change that domicile to New York are clearly inconsistent with any fixed intention to abandon Florida as his domicile," Sweeny wrote.

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