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What an inheritance fight over a brownstone reveals about the importance of writing an iron-clad will

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When Bill Cornwell passed away, Tom Doyle, his partner of over 50 years, naturally assumed that he would inherit Mr. Cornwell's West Village brownstone. As the New York Times reports, Cornwell did indeed bequeath the property—valued at over $7 million—to his partner, but because of a small oversight, Doyle is entitled to nothing. The signing of Cornwell's will was witnessed by one person, but New York state law requires two witnesses, so the document has been deemed invalid. Further complicating matters is that Doyle and Cornwell were never married, which means Cornwell's "next of kin"—his nieces and nephews—are legally entitled to the property. 

Cornwell's relatives weren't planning to leave their uncle's partner with nothing, per the Times. They intend to give Doyle $250,000 from the eventual sale of the building, as well as permit him to stay in the apartment where he now resides, for $10 per month for the next five years. 

Doyle, though, has filed a lawsuit stating that he was effectively Cornwell's spouse, and is the rightful inheritor of the property. For his part, Doyle says he is less concerned about the money and more committed to remaining in the property where he spent so many years with his partner. His attorney says that the nieces and nephews' claims to the brownstone an "injustice." 

According to the New York Daily News, inheriting property is ordinarily a relatively painless process for a surviving spouse, but in this case, the fact that Cornwell and Doyle were never legally married throws up major roadblocks. (Doyle's attorneys argue that the men had a common law marriage, but New York state does not recognize such partnerships.) 

Jules Haas, an attorney whose firm specializes in probate, estate planning, and real estate, says that this case reveals the importance of properly signing your will. New York estate planning law stipulates that formalizing a will requires the signature of a testator—that is, the person who makes the will—and two attesting witnesses, who must be informed of, and affirm, the testator's signature and sign it themselves within 30 days.

The statutes dictating the signing of will are so specific for a good reason, points out attorney Mira Weiss of Weiss Law Group PLLC. "The law put in place these protections to make sure the intention of the party was clear, and that the individuals involved understood what they were signing," she says, noting that when she presides over a signing, she ensures that the witnesses and testator understand the will clearly to avoid future disputes.

"It’s almost like a sacred ceremony—once you’re gone, you’re gone," she explains. "That’s why the law goes to extraordinary length to make syre the voice of the person who was deceased was heard."

The more surefire way to make your will iron-clad, Haas agrees, is to have all parties present and sign at the same time. "Everyone needs to see each other sign. There are innumerable variations when people don't do it the right way," he says. 

Haas adds that it's not difficult to do your will correctly if you follow the basics, and enlist an attorney who is well-versed in estate law. (In other words, when it comes to high-end real estate, it may be best not to go DIY with your will.) When you bequeath property, Haas advises writing "who's getting what," and putting provisions for the executor. "Make it clear and make it simple, and you won't have these problems," he says.

Weiss says the dispute covered in the Times is particularly unfortunate because had Cornwell and Doyle gotten married or had witnesses sign the will properly, they could have avoided a tremendous amount of hassle. "It's such a simple thing to execute properly and so sad when it’s not done right," she says. 

 

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