One could only imagine what George Jefferson — the wise-cracking character who was “movin’ on up” on the 1970′s TV hit, The Jeffersons — would have said about this predicament. The body of actor Sherman Hemsley, who played George Jefferson, has been kept on ice for the last 3 1/2 months. His remains have been refrigerated since he passed away from lung cancer on July 24, 2012, at the age of 74.
Why? It’s all because a man claiming to be his half-brother challenged the validity of Hemsley’s will in court. Hemsley’s will — created a mere 6 weeks before he died — left everything to his former business manager and close friend, Flora Enchinton. Sherman Hemsley had no other family members alive. Estate records show the value of his estate at around $50,000.
That’s not much money to fight over. But that didn’t stop Richard Thornton from coming forward and making the claim, which forced Hemsley’s body into legal limbo. Thornton asserted he should be the one to make burial arrangements for Hemsley, and that he planned to bury Hemsley in a veteran’s cemetery in Philadelphia where Hemsley grew up.
Enchinton opposed Thornton, calling his claims disgraceful and accusing Thornton of making a play for money. She says that she and Hemsley were very close, and he never mentioned having a brother. She wanted only to give Hemsley a dignified burial.
This past Friday, a judge in El Paso, Texas ruled in favor of Enchinton and found the will valid. The lawyer who prepared the will testified that he had no doubts that Hemsley was competent, based on his 50 years of experience. A nurse said on the stand that he had been mentally alert. And a friend testified that he specifically asked Hemsley about returning to Philadelphia, and Hemsley didn’t want that. Hemsley viewed Enchinton as his only family.
Interestingly, while DNA evidence did prove that Thornton was Hemsley’s half-brother, Thornton testified that the two did not call each other or exchange Christmas cards. He said his father, a minister, had an extramarital affair that led to Hemsley being born. The family kept it a secret … until after Hemsley became famous, of course.
So how could this half-brother who had no relationship with Hemsley be allowed to intercede and delay burial for months? Under Texas law, as in most states, the person who dies can name a person to handle burial arrangements. This is typically done through the person’s will. Once Thornton proved through DNA testing that he was Hemsley’s brother — and therefore the closest blood relative — he had the right to challenge the validity of Hemsley’s will.
It took months for that challenge to reach trial because of delays gathering the DNA evidence. Thornton claimed the funeral home interfered with his efforts to test a hair sample from Hemsley’s body against his own blood.
But, in the end, the DNA did not matter because Hemsley’s will was found to be valid. That means, regardless of the biological relationship, the person named in Hemsley’s will had the right to make the burial arrangements.
It’s a good lesson that any estate — even one with only $50,000 in assets — can be the subject of a probate fight after someone dies. Good estate planning is the best way to minimize the chances of one happening between your clients’ heirs. Here, the will was found valid and upheld. But, the fact it was signed so late in life — only 6 weeks before death when Hemsley was sick from lung cancer — gave an opening to Thornton to raise his challenge.
If the will had been signed long ago, before Hemsley was sick, Thornton likely would not have been able to drag the proceedings out as long as he did. Remind your clients that it’s always better to have wills, trusts, and other estate planning documents signed when the person is healthy, mentally sharp, and there is no question of mental competency. Waiting too long can open the door to an estate battle.
Luckily, this one ended after only a one day trial. But the remains of the great George Jefferson actor never should have been subjected to such undignified treatment. It’s a good lesson to share with any of your clients who may be procrastinating with his or her estate planning.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.