In the latest, very depressing example of the bad things people will do for New York real estate, the New York Times reports a West Village man may lose the home he shared with his partner for 55 years. Tom Doyle was bequeathed a small apartment building by his partner Bill Cornwell, but because they weren’t legally married and Cornwell’s will wasn’t properly witnessed, he’s having to fight an army of nieces and nephews in court.
Sarah Maslin Nir reports that Doyle was left the building in Cornwell’s will when he died at 88, two years ago. The men had lived there for five decades but never married: it wasn’t legal for the bulk of their relationship, and by the time it was, both men were quite elderly and Cornwell was unwell. They bought two wedding rings, but never got around to making it official:
Going to City Hall to get married felt like a strain to the couple, particularly for Mr. Cornwell, who had heart problems, Mr. Doyle said. And, after so much time together, it also felt unnecessary.
Now, of course, that apartment building is worth several million dollars. But Cornwell mistakenly had only one person witness the signing of his will, not two, as New York law requires. So the building legally falls to his next of kin, several nieces and nephews. One of them, Carole DeMaio, suggested to the NYT that maybe Cornwell didn’t really want to leave the building to his partner and, come to think of it, maybe they weren’t partners at all?
Carole DeMaio, one of the nieces, said her uncle never took the necessary steps to make sure everything went to Mr. Doyle, including not marrying him, because he did not want to.
“He had 50 years to put Tom’s name on any of these papers,” Ms. DeMaio said. “The will was never a valid will.” Ms. DeMaio suggested that perhaps the two men were just “friends” or “great companions.”
Doyle is now 85 and suing the nieces and nephews in Surrogate’s Court. He was unsatisfied by their proposed solution, which was to let him stay in the building for five more years and to give him $250,000 from its eventual sale. A lawyer for the family, Peter Gray, also questioned the point of Doyle’s lawsuit, Nir reports, “given the likelihood that he has few remaining years.” Very nice.
Cornwell was a longtime neighborhood activist in the West Village, and local papers have been writing about the situation since the spring: an attorney named Arthur Z. Schwartz penned an editorial in the West Village News calling the nieces and nephews “greedy.” Schwartz said he is helping Doyle assert his legal claims in court, which include arguing that the couple were common-law married in Pennsylvania, where they sometimes vacationed and where they bought their dog Bingo in 1991.
“I have made Tom Doyle’s rightful claim to 69 Horatio Street,” Schwartz wrote. “It is a claim born of love and the cruel refusal of New York to recognize gay marriage for so many years.”
According to property records, the handsome red brick building was built in 1905. It’s surely a hot commodity. But so is waking up every morning and being able to look yourself in the mirror, secure in the knowledge that you never tried to cheat an elderly, grieving widower.