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A Brownstone and the Bitter Fight to Inherit It

Published: October 23, 2016

Publication: NY Times

By Sarah Maslin Nir

Tom Doyle outside his apartment on Horatio Street in Manhattan, where he lived with his partner Bill Cornwell for decades. The inheritance of the building is in dispute. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times

Bill Cornwell and Tom Doyle lived in a brownstone in the West Village for over five decades. They were artists, neighborhood fixtures and committed partners. Their enduring love never seemed to them to need codification — not to mention that for most of their relationship, gay marriage was illegal.

Mr. Cornwell died two years ago at age 88. Now, his will, in which he bequeathed the small apartment building to Mr. Doyle, is in dispute, leaving his partner with no clear claim to his home of 55 years. The property, on Horatio Street, is an extremely valuable asset, and several of Mr. Cornwell’s nieces and nephews have claimed it as their inheritance, rejecting the notion that their uncle wanted it to go to Mr. Doyle. They put the building up for sale, and it is now under contract — for over $7 million.

“I’m not so concerned about the money, I’m more concerned about a roof over my head for the rest of my life, and I wouldn’t have to be in a nursing home,” Mr. Doyle, 85, said, as he sat outside the cluttered one-bedroom apartment he shared with Mr. Cornwell. “As long as I am here, I have all the familiar surroundings. It’s almost as if Bill is still here.”

The dispute has now shifted to court.

Mr. Cornwell set down his final wishes about a decade ago. All his possessions, including the three-story, four-unit building of which he was the sole titleholder, should go to his longtime partner, the will stipulated. But the document’s signing was witnessed by only one person, not two, as required in New York State, making it legally invalid. Mr. Doyle attributed the error to a simple oversight, perhaps because of both men’s advanced age.

Without a valid will, the law requires that all of Mr. Cornwell’s assets go to his next of kin, two nieces and two nephews. 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.

A portrait of Mr. Cornwell, who died two years ago. His will, which bequeathed the Horatio Street building to Mr. Doyle, is legally invalid. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times

“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.”

Mr. Doyle has sued the nieces and nephews in Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan, asserting his claim to the building. His suit, through a contorted trail of arguments, seeks to prove that he was indeed Mr. Cornwell’s spouse. That way, Mr. Cornwell’s assets would go to Mr. Doyle, as the surviving spouse, even in the absence of a will.

The legal argument is based on the claim that the two men were in a “common law marriage’’ — even though New York State does not legally recognize such arrangements. But Pennsylvania, which the couple visited in 1991 to buy their dog Bingo — a symbol of their commitment — did recognize common law marriages until 2005, the suit argues. As a result, Pennsylvania law at the time should apply.

Arthur Z. Schwartz, a lawyer who is representing Mr. Doyle, said there was legal precedent for such an argument. More important, he said, was the simple issue of fairness. “I thought there was an injustice,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Because this was clearly the will of Bill Cornwell.”

The suit came as a surprise to Mr. Cornwell’s nieces and nephews. They had tried to mollify Mr. Doyle by arranging for him to stay in the building. The contract for the sale of the property includes a clause stating that he must remain in his garden-level apartment, at a rent of $10 a month, for five years. He will also receive $250,000 from the eventual sale of the building, according to Peter Gray, a lawyer for Mr. Cornwell’s family members.

Mr. Doyle, however, believed that was hardly a satisfactory compromise because, he said, “there should be no question” about who is the building’s legitimate owner.

  The rings purchased by Mr. Doyle and Mr. Cornwell for a wedding they never held. A ceremony would have been a strain, and it felt unnecessary after decades of living together, Mr. Doyle recalled.CreditSarah Maslin Nir/The New York Times

Mr. Gray questioned the point of Mr. Doyle’s complaint, given the likelihood that he has few remaining years.

One niece, Shelia McNichols, had attempted to abide by her uncle’s wishes by assigning her piece of the inheritance to Mr. Doyle, but the rest of Mr. Cornwell’s relatives chose not to go along, Mr. Gray said. The arrangement to allow Mr. Doyle to stay in the building, the lawyer added, was out of respect for him and the family’s love for Mr. Cornwell.

“Could they have all agreed to say, ‘Yeah, listen, fine: Whatever we would inherit as nieces and nephews, you can have it,’?” Mr. Gray asked. “But they saw dollar signs, a couple million dollars each, and they are not going to necessarily give that up. It’s not like they are leaving him on the street.”

But, he added, in light of the lawsuit, that agreement could change. “I don’t know if the nieces and nephews will still feel so benevolent after they’re sued,” Mr. Gray said. Reached by phone, Ms. McNichols declined to comment. The nephews could not be reached.

“I’ve thought about the nephews and nieces,” said Mark Dennis, 42, an information technology consultant who has lived in the Horatio Street building for 13 years. “They should be ethically and morally obliged to say, ‘This isn’t right.’ And they’ve chosen not to do that.”

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Doyle pulled out two little boxes tied with white bows from an armoire. Each held a silver wedding ring, purchased, he said, around the time gay marriage became legal in New York State, but never used. 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.

The current situation has left Mr. Doyle frightened, feeling a loss of control over his life and suspicious of people he once considered his extended family. “It’s as if I’ve been deserted,’’ he said. “I don’t hate them, but they are fighting over what is legally mine and Bill’s.’’

Correction: October 25, 2016 An article on Monday about legal issues surrounding the inheritance of a brownstone, in which two longtime partners who never married lived for 55 years, attributed a quotation incorrectly. It was Tom Doyle — not his partner, Bill Cornwell — who recently said he is frightened by the ordeal. (Mr. Cornwell died two years ago.)

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