Published: May 4, 2016
By Arthur Z. Schwartz
IN SUPPORT OF BILL AND HIS WILL: Bill Cornwall celebrating his 84th birthday, prior to his death and subsequent dispute over his will. Photo courtesy of Arthur Schwartz.
For 55 years Bill Cornwall and Tom Doyle lived together, as a married couple, at 69 Horatio Street. In 1971, Bill, a graphic art-ist who worked in advertising, bought the building from his landlord. Bill and Tom became active members of the Horatio Street Association (both served as Presi-dent), supporters of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and par-ticipants in the Sixth Precinct Community Council. In June 2014, Bill died.
Marriage for gay partners became legal in 2013. “We were talking about getting married,” Tom told me. “Bill even sent away for two rings. But we’d have to make two trips, one for the license and one for the ceremony, and we were both north of 85. And after a lifetime together, marriage doesn’t mean that much.”
But it turns out that it did. Bill Cornwall executed a will leaving everything to Tom. The transfer of property would have happened automatically even without a will had they been married. But the two weren’t married, and the will was key. But the will was defective, and Bill had some greedy nieces and nephews, who began to drool over the building, now worth an estimated $7 million. They hired counsel and filed in Surrogates Court for the building and began the process of putting it on the market. Enter another opportunist, a real estate broker who, years ago, rented an apartment in the building long term and got Bill Cornwall to give him the “right of first refusal” on the building. He slapped a lien on the building claiming he had the right to buy it. Luckily for Tom Doyle, he has slowed things down. Had the niece and nephews sold the building, Tom Doyle, at age 87, would be homeless!
Tom has come to my office and we have come up with a plan. While New York never recognized common law marriage, Pennsylvania did until recently. Bill Cornwall and Tom Doyle vacationed there a number of times, and New York Courts will recognize common law marriages if they would be recognized in a state where a couple visited, even if the visit was brief. I have made Tom Doyle’s rightful claim to 69 Horatio Street. It is a claim born of love and the cruel refusal of New York to recognize gay marriage for so many years. I look forward to the support of our community.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Village District Leader and the principal attorney at Advocates for Justice, Chartered Attorneys.