Tom Doyle (pictured above) and his partner, Bill Cornwell, lived together in a three-story West Village brownstone for 55 years. Now that Cromwell has passed his greedy relatives are contesting the will, a legal battle that could force Doyle out of the home the men shared which is valued in todays market at over 7 million dollars.
Cornwell, who passed away at the age of 88 in 2014, left Doyle everything in his will. There was, though, just one problem: The document was only signed by one person—Doyle’s niece, Sheila McNichols. Without a second signature on the will, it’s legally invalid. That means that claims on the home goes to his next of kin.
Cornwell’s family, thus, argue that they have a legal right to own, operate, or sell the building if they so please.
“He had 50 years to put Tom’s name on any of these papers,” Carole DeMaio, Cornwell’s niece told The New York Times. “The will was never a valid will.” DeMaio further claimed that the two—despite their many years of cohabitation—were never a couple. She said that they were just “friends” or “great companions.”
“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.”
Another issue is that the men, who lived most of their life together at a time when same-sex marriage was illegal, never wed.
Wedding rings were purchased at 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.
One niece of Mr. Cromwell’s, 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, and instead offered a contract that would allow him to remain in thier garden-level apartment, at a rent of $10 a month, for five years. He would also receive $250,000 from the eventual sale of the building after he filed suit against them in the Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan, asserting his claim to the building.
Arthur Z. Schwartz, a lawyer who is representing Mr. Doyle, said there was legal precedent claiming 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.
The situation has left Tom 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.’’