A survivor of a same-sex marriage can inherit as a spouse, an appeals court said Thursday in a ruling a gay-rights legal group called the first appellate decision of its kind in New York.
While same-sex couples can't wed in the state, J. Craig Leiby and H. Kenneth Ranftle were legally married in Canada, so Leiby is entitled to recognition as the surviving spouse in a dispute over Ranftle's estate, the appellate judges said in upholding a lower court's decision.
Leiby and Ranftle married in Montreal on June 7, 2008, after being together for nearly 25 years, according to court papers. Financial and professional services workers, they lived and worked in New York City.
Ranftle died of lung cancer Nov. 1, 2008, according to an obituary notice.
One of Ranftle's brothers, Richard, sought to contest the will and challenged the legitimacy of the marriage, saying it violated public policy in New York. The will left most of the estate to Leiby, with bequests to Richard Ranftle, other brothers and a goddaughter.
"New York's long-settled marriage recognition rule affords comity to out-of-state marriages" that are valid where they are made, the state Supreme Court's Appellate Division wrote.
There are exceptions for marriages that violate New York statutes or "natural law," sometimes interpreted to mean such situations as polygamy and incest. But "same-sex marriage does not fall within either of the two exceptions," the appeals judges wrote.
Gov. David Paterson ordered state agencies in 2008 to respect out-of-state gay marriages, and New York court decisions have recognized such marriages in cases arising in other contexts, such as health benefits.
But the Leiby case marks the first time a New York appeals court has afforded recognition to same-sex spouses for inheritance purposes, said Susan Sommer, senior counsel for the gay rights advocacy organization Lambda Legal. The group represented Leiby.
"(Thursday's ruling) is a decision that helps put to rest the idea that out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples could be vulnerable to attack from private parties," she said. "Family members cannot come in and try to pretend there was no marriage and interfere with the private choices the deceased spouse, Mr. Ranftle, made about protecting and leaving his estate to Mr. Leiby."
Richard Ranftle's lawyer didn't immediately return a call Thursday evening.