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    WILLS & ESTATES: Same-Sex Couples

    Posted by Gale Burns on Tue, Oct 1, 2013 @ 11:10 AM

    The Lawletter Vol 38 No 7

    Brad Pettit, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

         The courts of the various states are quite busy addressing issues that arise in the context of same-sex marriage.  This activity will certainly increase, given the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013).

         A recent decision by a New York State appellate court, while not relying on Windsor, is illustrative of the kinds of issues that can arise in administering the estate of a decedent who was involved in a same-sex marriage that was recognized in some states but not in others.  In the case of In re Ranftle, 969 N.Y.S.2d 48 (App. Div. 2013), the court held that for purposes of probating the will of a deceased married person, the decedent's surviving same-sex spouse had met his burden of proof in showing that the deceased testator had changed his domicile from
    Florida (does not recognize same-sex marriages) to New York (recognizes same-sex marriages) in the months prior to his death.

         In reaching its decision, the Ranftle appellate court stated that "[w]e see no basis for disturbing the Surrogate's Court's finding that Ranftle changed his domicile to New York in the months before his death," id. at 51, even though the decedent's will contained a statement declaring that he was a resident of Florida.  Rather than focusing solely on what the decedent's will said about the testator's residence, the probate and appellate courts in the Ranftle case both relied on New York's rules for determining the domicile of a decedent at the time of his or her death.  The Ranftle court's ruling reads as follows:

         The Surrogate's Court Procedure Act defines domicile as "[a] fixed, permanent and principal home to which a person wherever temporarily located always intends to return" (SCPA 103[15]). "The determination of an individual's domicile is ordinarily based on conduct manifesting an intent to establish a permanent home with permanent associations in a given location" (Matter of Clute v. Chu, 106 A.D.2d 841, 843, 484 N.Y.S.2d 239 [3d Dept 1984]). A person's domicile is generally a mixed question of fact and law, which the court must determine after reviewing the pertinent evidence (see Matter of Brunner, 41 N.Y.2d 917, 918 [1977]).   No single factor is dispositive (Matter of Kartiganer v. Koenig, 194 A.D.2d 879, 881, 599 N.Y.S.2d 312 [3d Dept 1993]), and the unique facts and circumstances of each case must be considered (Ruderman v. Ruderman, 193 Misc. 85, 87, 82 N.Y.S.2d 479 [Sup Ct, N.Y. County 1948], affd, 275 A.D. 834, 89 N.Y.S.2d 894 [1st Dept 1949]). A party alleging a change of domicile has the burden of proving that change by clear and convincing evidence (Gletzer v. Harris, 51 A.D.3d 196, 199, 854 N.Y.S.2d 10 [1st Dept 2008], affd, 12 N.Y.3d 468 [2009]).

         We agree with the Surrogate that Leiby met his burden of proof as to the change of domicile. 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 into 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.


         It will be interesting to follow the evolving case law as to the rights of persons who enter into same-sex marriages. There is little doubt that cases like the Ranftle decision will become more commonplace as long as there is a split among the states as to recognition of same-sex marriages.

    Topics: legal research, Brad Pettit, The Lawletter Vol 38 No 7, burden of proof, same-sex marriage, United States v. Windsor, wills & estates, estate administration, domiciliary at death

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