A panel of the New York Appellate Division (1st Department) on July 2 affirmed the New York County Surrogate Court’s ruling that H. Kenneth Ranftle, decedent, had change his state of domicile from Florida to New York prior to his death, rejecting the argument by one of Ranftle’s brothers that the New York court lacked jurisdiction over the estate’s personal property. One judge dissented, asserting that Ranftle’s husband, the executor and proponent of the will, had failed to meet the burden of showing a change in domicile. In re H. Kenneth Ranftle, Deceased, No. 4585/08.
Ranftle and J. Craig Leiby became domestic partners in 1990 and, according to the court, “remained a committed couple until Ranftle’s death” in November 2008. Leiby maintained his domicile in New York throughout their relationship, but Ranftle also owned a house in Fort Lauderdale, and in 2003 took steps to make Florida his state of domicile, mainly to escape New York taxes. Ranftle was careful to document that he spent more than half of each year in Florida from 2003 through 2007. However, he lived in New York, in the apartment he owned together with Leiby, for a substantial part of each year, maintaining his concert and theater subscriptions in New York City. In March 2008, Ranftle was diagnosed with lung cancer while in New York, and never returned to Florida. He had one of his cars shipped from Florida to New York and settled in full time in the New York apartment, which was in the same neighborhood as his doctors and near Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he was being treated.
Around the time that Ranftle was diagnosed with cancer, New York began to recognize same-sex marriages contracted elsewhere, first in a court decision and then in a directive to state agencies from Governor David Paterson, reacting to the court decision. Ranftle proposed marriage to Leiby, and they went to Canada and got married. Ranftle took some other steps to re-establish domicile in New York, but fell short of accomplishing everything before he died just days short of the November 2008 presidential election. He had his will revised, in accordance with his new marital status, but due to oversight, according to his lawyer, the revision still mentioned his domicile as Florida. He did have various financial accounts shifted to New York, but did not change his driver’s license or voter registration, and took advantage of Florida’s early voting rules to cast an absentee ballot.
After Ranftle died, Leiby arranged to file Ranftle’s tax returns for 2008 in New York, as Ranftle had contemplated doing in a meeting with his tax advisor over the summer, and Leiby sought to have the will probated in New York County. After probate was completed by Surrogate Kristin Booth Glenn, one of Ranftle’s brothers, Ronald, sought to have the matter reopened, claiming that the marriage was a nullity and that the surviving siblings of Ranftle should have been notified of the probate proceedings and allowed to intervene. (Under New York law, such notification is required if a decedent is not survived by a spouse.) The courts held, consistent with the early 2008 legal developments, that the marriage was recognized and that no notice of probate had to be given to the brothers.
Then another brother came forth, challenging probate as to Ranftle’s personal property on the ground that he had died a Florida domiciliary. The Surrogate’s Court held a hearing and decided that Leiby had met the burden of showing a change of domicile, and the second brother appealed.
“We see no basis for disturbing the Surrogate Court’s finding that Ranftle changed his domicile to New York in the months before his death,” wrote the court. “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.”
Justice Sweeney disagreed, finding that “the evidence of intent to change domicile, however, is largely ambiguous.” He argued that redirecting mail and checks to the New York address was practical, given that Ranftle would be staying there because of the medical treatment, but “does not conclusively demonstrate an intent to change domicile.” He placed greater weight on the documents that still specify Florida as Ranftle’s domicile, including the revised will, and the casting of a ballot in Florida just a week before his death, as well as the failure to change his driver’s license and the registration on his car to New York. Sweeney found this evidence more persuasive in light of the “meticulousness” in Ranftle’s record-keeping in order to benefit from Florida’s lower tax burdens.
Resting on the presumption that a “domicile once established is presumed to continue unless and until a new domicile is acquired,” Sweeney noted precedents holding that in the face of ambiguous evidence, the original domicile should prevail.
Since the personal property in question is undoubtedly valuable enough to have inspired the surviving brother to undertake litigation, one suspects that an application for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals may follow this decision.
Leiby and the Estate of Ranftle are represented by LeGaL member Erica Bell of Weiss, Buell & Bell, New York.