In a promising first step for a gay man fighting to hold onto the West Village home he shared with his late partner for 53 years, a Manhattan Surrogate Court judge has blocked sale of the property by the dead man’s nieces and nephews and ordered them to show cause why Tom Doyle, as their uncle’s “surviving spouse,” should not be declared “the sole heir” to the property.
In a November 1 ruling, Judge Nora Anderson issued a temporary restraining order against four nieces and nephews of William Cornwell selling the townhouse at 69 Horatio Street he purchased in 1979 and where he lived in a garden apartment with Doyle beginning in 1961.
Anderson's show cause order gave the four until November 18 "or as soon thereafter as counsel may be heard."
Cornwell and Doyle began their relationship in 1958, and Cornwell had purchased wedding rings for the couple after New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011. According to Doyle, however, Cornwell’s declining health prevented the men from making the trip to the city Marriage Bureau on Worth Street prior to Cornwell’s death in 2014.
Cornwell had left the property to Doyle in his will, but that will had only one witness, while New York law requires two. Arthur Z. Schwartz, one of Doyle’s attorneys, told Gay City News that he believes there is no way to challenge what he sees as an ironclad requirement for the will.
Judge Anderson had previously appointed Sheila McNichols, the daughter of Cornwell’s sister Elsie, and James Michael Cornwell, the son of his brother Harry, as co-administrators of Cornwell’s estate and authorized them and James Michael Cornwell's sister and brother, Carole Ann DeMaio and Vint James Cornwell, to put the property up for sale. After entering into a contract with a prospective buyer for more than $7 million, the nieces and nephews offered to allow Doyle, who is 85, to stay in his home for five years and to pay him a $250,000 cut from the proceeds of the building he and Cornwell managed for the past 37 years and lived in for 55 years.
Schwartz and his co-counsel, Jamie L. Wolf, filed suit claiming that time Cornwell and Doyle spent vacationing in New Hope, Pennsylvania, over the years qualified them as common law spouses in that state. Though New York State does not have a legal category of common law spouse (and nor does Pennsylvania since 2005), if the couple qualified for that status in the years prior to 2005, New York State would, under existing precedent, recognize such a marriage.
One wrinkle in the argument, of course, is that it requires the retroactive application of last year’s US Supreme Court marriage equality ruling to the years when Doyle and Cornwell vacationed in New Hope, a point on which there are no clear legal guidelines.
When Sheila McNichols originally learned that she and her cousins were eligible to inherit the townhouse, she offered to yield her share to Doyle in return for his leaving the property to her in his will. McNichols, however, failed to convince her cousins to go along with that plan, and so the four of them proceeded to put the townhouse on the market.
The New York Times quoted DeMaio as speculating that perhaps her uncle and Doyle were just “friends” or “great companions” – who shared a one-bedroom apartment for 53 years. DeMaio told Gay City News that the Times mischaracterized her comments, but she declined to elaborate. Sheila McNichols also declined comment.
James Michael Cornwell and Vint James Cornwell could not be reached for comment. In an affidavit filed in this case, Doyle wrote that James Michael Cornwell responded to news of William Cornwell’s death by saying, “Now I get a windfall from my rich uncle.”
Schwartz told Gay City News, via email,“The entry of a Temporary Restraining Order by the Surrogate is a great step forward, since it indicates that at least, based on our papers, she believes that we have made a plausible legal case that Tom Doyle and Bill Cornwell were married, and should be treated as such for purposes of inheritance. This is the first step in litigation which will go on for a while, and will probably end up in the NY Court of Appeals, but the blocking of the sale of the house gives Tom Doyle some well deserved piece of mind.”