NY Appellate Court Upholds Distribution of Decedent’s Estate to Same-Sex Spouse

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An appellate court in New York has upheld the decision of New York County Surrogate Kristen Booth Glen (formerly of CUNY Law) to recognize a decedent’s same-sex marriage for estate administration purposes.  Specifically, Surrogate Glen had permitted probate of the decedent’s will without giving notice to the decedent’s siblings.

In this case, H. Kenneth Ranftle v. Craig Leiby,the decedent was survived by his spouse, whom he had married legally in Canada, as well as his siblings.  Under his will, the decedent made bequests to three brothers and a goddaughter.  He left the remainder to his spouse.

Ordinarily in New York, the people entitled to notice of probate (and those with standing to contest a will) are those named in will as well as the decedent’s intestate heirs.  If a decedent is survived by a spouse, but no parents and no descendants, then the only people entitled to notice of probate are those named in the will and the decedent’s surviving spouse.  If the decedent has no spouse, no descendants and no parents who survive, then the decedent’s siblings are entitled to receive notice of probate.

The question in this case, then, was whether the decedent was survived by a “spouse” for purposes of New York law.  The New York County Surrogate thought so, and the Appellate Division affirmed.  The court reasoned that principles of comity required New York to recognize the decedent’s same-sex Canadian marriage.  Therefore, the decedent’s was survived by his spouse, and only those named in the will (including some of his siblings, but not all of them) and the decedent’s spouse were entitled to notice of probate.

It will be interesting to see whether opponents of same-sex marriage attempt to construe the court’s holding very narrowly — arguing that it should be limited only to the procedural question of who is entitled to notice of probate.  Proponents of same-sex marriage will emphasize the court’s broad statements about comity.

The full text of the decision in the case is here.

-Bridget Crawford

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