Judge Orders DNA Testing In Sherman Hemsley Will Dispute

The actor most famous for his role as George Jefferson on 1970’s hit show The Jeffersons, died July 14, 2012, but Sherman Hemsley's body remains unburied because of a dispute over the validity of his will. 

When Sherman Hemsley passed away from lung cancer he left his estate worth around $50,000, according to The New York Times, to his former manager, Flora Enchinton. But a man named Richard Thornton, claiming to be Hemsley’s half brother, emerged to contest the will with accusations that the will is fraudulent and that the document, signed six weeks before his death, was not written by the late actor. 

“A teary Enchinton slammed Thornton as an opportunist looking for a quick payday,” reports the NY Daily News. Enchinton said she lived with the actor for 10 years, and was reportedly named in the will as a "beloved friend." 

A probate judge in Texas, where Hemsley lived, has ordered Thornton to undergo a DNA test to prove his relationship to Hemsley. Thornton must provide DNA results by October 15, and the estate trial is set for October 31. Until the dispute is settled, Hemsley’s body will reportedly remain on ice in a funeral home in El Paso, Texas. 

Who Can Contest a Will? 

A person can only contest a will if they can prove they have what is known as standing. A person with standing is one who is directly affected by the will and can prove their rights to the estate are impacted by an omission, action or other perceived discrepancy in the will.

Typically, a relative would have standing to challenge, so if it is proven that he is not family, Thornton's claims will have no weight with the probate court.

Common Reasons People Challenge Wills

To challenge the validity of a will, there must be legal grounds to do so. Typical grounds include:

  • The will is not properly signed: Each state has laws governing the execution of a will. In most, two witnesses are required for the signing to be valid. In Texas, where Hemsley's will was created, validity requirements are that a will must be in writing and signed by the testator in the presence of two witnesses.
  • The creator of the will lacked mental capacity at the time of signing: They must be deemed of sound mind, meaning they are aware of what possessions and assets they are giving away, and to whom. Or, 
  • If fraud, force or undue influence are at play in the making of the will: In the case of fraud or force, there is a clear intent to change or forge the wishes of the creator; with undue influence, a person often more subtly exerts control over the creator to a point that the creator relinquishes control. 

The will challenges brought by Hemsley’s proclaimed half-brother are based on the third scenario listed here, specifically, fraud and forgery. If he is able to prove through DNA testing that he has standing, and can prove in trial that foul play took place as he claims, he may be entitled to a portion of the estate. The costs of probating a will, however, are taken out of the original estate, so the remaining amount could end up being much less. 

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