Fight over ownership of $7M Village townhouse heads to court

The four-story, three-unit building on Horatio Street is under contract
October 24, 2016 05:15PM

69 Horatio Street in the West Village

69 Horatio Street in the West Village

The Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan will now decide the owner of a West Village apartment building, following a bitter dispute between the late owner’s family and his partner of more than 50 years.

Bill Cornwell and Tom Doyle lived in the brownstone at 69 Horatio Street for more than five decades. Cornwell, who was the sole title holder of the four-story, three-unit building, died in 2014 at age 88. His decade-old will left all his belongings, including the West Village building, to the 85-year-old Doyle. But as the document was signed by just one person, not two, it is not legally valid and all assets automatically go to the next of kin, the New York Times reported.

A number of Cornwell’s nieces and nephews now claim to own the building, and have entered into contract to sell it for $7 million. They reject the suggestion their uncle wanted Doyle to inherit the property.

However, Doyle said there “should be no question” over who owns the building. He is suing Cornwell’s nieces and nephews in Surrogate’s Court, arguing that he was Cornwell’s spouse and all assets should therefore go to him — even if there is no will.

Doyle and his lawyers argue the two men were in a “common law marriage.” Such a union is not legally recognized in New York state. But the suit argues that because the couple visited Pennsylvania — where common law marriages were recognized until 2005 — in 1991 to buy their dog, the law of that state at the time should apply.

Cornwell’s nieces and nephews have tried to placate Doyle by making arrangements for him to stay in the building. The contract for the sale of the property stipulates that he may remain in his garden-level apartment for five years for a monthly rent of $10. He is also set to receive $250,000 from the sale of the building.

But Doyle argues that is not a fair compromise. “I’m not so concerned about the money, I’m more concerned about a roof over my head for the rest of my life,” Doyle told the Times.

“As long as I am here, I have all the familiar surroundings. It’s almost as if Bill is still here,” he said. [NYT]Miriam Hall