top of page

West Village man using common-law marriage in uncommon estate fight

Published: November 3, 2016

Publication: The Villager


Tom Doyle, a graphic artist in fashion advertising, in his home studio. Photo by Donna Aceto

It was 1958, and 27-year-old Tom Doyle was working at a Manhattan advertising agency. A colleague, whom he had immediately struck up a friendship with, asked him to join two other friends out one evening, but the colleague paused after extending the invitation and asked, “You are gay, right?”

Doyle answered in the affirmative, but recalls that he was a bit awkward in doing so. It was the ’50s, after all, and apparently both men were cautious types.

The bond took, and in time, the colleague invited Doyle out to a beach house he had inherited in Breezy Point in the Rockaways. It was there he got to know Bill Cornwell, who was about five years older and also worked in advertising.

Their meeting changed both men’s lives. Today, 58 years later, Doyle is fighting to save the Horatio St. home he and Cornwell shared for more than half a century.

Following a brief courtship, Doyle moved into a studio apartment where Cornwell lived on W. Fourth St., and they later moved into a fourth-floor walk-up on Bank St., where they paid $69 a month. In 1961, they spied the opportunity for a ground-level floor-through in a townhouse on Horatio St., garden included, and decided the extra $26 a month was worth it.

Not that moving from Bank St. to Horatio was the obvious choice back then, Doyle recalled. The nearby Meat Market was still in full swing, and trucks were coming and going at all hours. Bones sometimes flew off the trucks, and underneath a portion of the High Line since taken down, a pedestrian could happen upon an unwelcome carcass.

Perhaps of greater concern to the men was the opinion of their old neighbors on Bank St.

“It’s kind of slummy over there, isn’t it?” Doyle recalled some of them asking.

But peer pressure, in the end, didn’t daunt them. When the building came up for sale in 1979, the couple decided it was a good investment.

“We thought we would have it for our retirement,” Doyle explained.

Doyle was a graphic artist in fashion advertising who often worked freelance, so Cornwell, with a steady full-time gig as an art director, had the deeper pockets in the family. It was Cornwell who purchased the building through an S Corporation, of which he made Doyle an officer. Throughout the succeeding 35 years until Cornwell’s death in 2014, Doyle said, he continued contributing his half of the apartment’s monthly upkeep.

Bill Cornwell with the dog he and Tom Doyle raised. Photo courtesy Tom Doyle

The wedding rings Bill Cornwell bought for Tom Doyle and himself. Photo by Donna Aceto

According to Doyle, a neighbor insisted he would rent a car and take them down to the Marriage Bureau on Worth St. But for Cornwell, in poor health and with many pressing tasks undone — most importantly, a heart pacemaker unattended to — the day was never right for the wedding.

Three days after Cornwell’s 88th birthday in June 2014, Doyle left him in their living room to run to the drug store, only to realize he had forgotten something. After fetching what he needed, he called out, “O.K., I’m leaving again,” but realized he had gotten no response. When he peaked his head into the living room, he saw that his life partner of 56 years was gone. The couple never had the chance to place the rings Cornwell bought onto each other’s fingers.

In a legal filing submitted in connection with Doyle’s fight for the home that Cornwell alone owned at the time of his death, Doyle wrote, “When Bill died, my life was turned upside down. I lost my best friend, partner and husband and spent a long time grieving over the unexpected loss.”

It was Sheila McNichols, Doyle continued, that he turned to for “comfort, support and guidance.”

McNichols and her husband have visited Doyle in New York on a nearly monthly basis since Cornwell’s death. Doyle is clearly grateful for the help they have provided in managing the business affairs of the townhouse that his late partner oversaw — even if he has, at times, been perturbed by McNichols’s husband’s snooping around both the apartment and the building generally.

It was from Peter Gray, a lawyer that McNichols engaged, that Doyle learned that the will Cornwell drew up, leaving the building to Doyle, was fatally flawed because it had only one of the two witness signatures required. With no valid will, the property would instead go to four nieces and nephews of Cornwell’s, McNichols included.

The late Bill Cornwell in the backyard of the Horatio St. home he shared with Tom Doyle. Photo courtesy Tom Doyle

Doyle recalls that McNichols’s initial reaction was that this outcome would be unfair, and that Gray then drafted a document in which she would assign her share of the building to Doyle in return for it reverting to her after his death. Doyle understood that she would persuade the other three heirs to do the same.

But they would not, and it only slowly became clear to Doyle that he was at risk of losing his home. What Cornwell’s nieces and nephews proposed instead was that Doyle would receive $250,000 from the proceeds of selling the building — currently under contract for more than $7 million — a sale contingent on Doyle being allowed to continue living there for five years at the nominal rent of $10 a month.

“The plan I had for my remaining years has become totally distorted,” Doyle wrote in his legal filing. “Bill and I lived comfortably together for over 50 years. We always planned to use the rental income from 69 Horatio Street…to enjoy our remaining years in comfort together. I am now deeply concerned that if I do not receive my share of the estate I will be forced to live like a pauper.”

Doyle has now retained attorney Arthur Schwartz, who is challenging the four nieces and nephews in Surrogate’s Court. According to Schwartz, there is no wiggle room on the requirement for two witness signatures on Cornwell’s will. Instead, he is arguing that Doyle is due the full inheritance based on his status as Cornwell’s husband. The couple never married in New York, nor did they ever register in New York City as domestic partners. The only legal paperwork attesting to their relationship are properly witnessed healthcare proxies and a joint bank account.

Schwartz maintains that the time the two men spent together in Pennsylvania — in purchasing a dog in 1991 and on a number of vacation visits to a friend in New Hope — qualifies them as common-law spouses there, a legal relationship not available in New York but available in Pennsylvania during the time Doyle and Cornwell spent there. New York does recognizes valid common-law marriages from other states. But to prevail, Doyle will have to convince the Surrogate’s Court to apply last year’s Supreme Court marriage-equality ruling retroactively in Pennsylvania more than a decade earlier.

In other words, this is complicated litigation that, if successful, could be historic.

In an encouraging sign, on Tues., Nov. 1, a Surrogate Court judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing the building’s sale.

The living room of the Horatio St. home that Tom Doyle and Bill Cornwell shared for their many years together. Photo by Donna Aceto

Cornwell’s nieces and nephews have not reacted well to Doyle’s efforts to stand up for himself.

Gray told The New York Times that the accommodation his clients offered Doyle in terms of a quarter-million dollars and a guaranteed five years more in the apartment may now be off the table.

“I don’t know if the nieces and nephews will still feel so benevolent after they’re sued,” he stated.

In his court papers, Doyle termed the news from McNichols that the deal she originally offered had not been accepted by the other heirs “shocking.” But he said the two remain “on cordial terms.”

“Sheila and I have sort of skirted around the subject,” he said. “She always says, ‘Oh, Uncle Tom, we love you.’”

Reached by phone, McNichols complained that Gay City News (The Villager’s sister paper) was “about the fourth publication that Tom’s attorney has set on me,” and declined further comment.

Another niece, Carole DeMaio, was quoted in The New York Times as speculating that perhaps Doyle and Cornwell were just “friends” or “great companions.”

Asked whether that was an accurate characterization of what she said, DeMaio responded no, but declined further comment, saying, “I don’t trust anybody anymore.”

Attempts to reach the two nephews who each stand to inherit a quarter of the $7 million estate were unsuccessful. Doyle said he never met either of them, and in court papers wrote that one, upon learning of Cornwell’s death, said, “Now I get a windfall from my rich uncle.”

Doyle has been buoyed by the response of neighbors and friends to news of his situation, including a pledge from the prospective buyer now in contract that they

the situation keep him worried, as well.

“Sometimes I think I’m in denial to a degree,” Doyle said.

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page