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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Actor Sherman Hemsley's Disputed Will and Delayed Burial

     Born in 1938, Sherman Alexander Hemsley studied acting as an adolescent at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts. He served four years in the Air Force, and worked eight years as a postal clerk while acting in New York City workshops and theater companies. In 1973, Hemsley became a regular on the popular television sitcom, "All in The Family." Two years later, he began starring as George Jefferson in the spin-off show, "The Jeffersons." In that sitcom, Hemsley played the role of a feisty, bigoted owner of a dry cleaning chain. In his later years, the actor retired and took up residence in El Paso, Texas.

     The 74-year-old actor, on July 24, 2012, died from complications related to lung cancer. At the time of his death he had been scheduled for radiation and chemotherapy treatment. Had Mr. Hemsley died in California, because he was a celebrity, his body would have been autopsied pursuant to state law. Since there was no reason to think that Hemsley's manner of his death was anything but natural, the authorities in Texas did not arrange an autopsy.

     According to Mr. Hemsley's last will and testament, his entire estate, valued at $50,000, would pass to Flora Enchinton Bernal, his live-in friend and manager. But when two people came forward to challenge the disposition of Mr. Hemley's assets, Bernal could not proceed with his funeral and burial. As a result, his remains were put on hold at the San Jose Funeral Home in El Paso. Probate battles are not uncommon, particularly following the deaths of wealthy people. However, due to the size of Mr. Hemsley's estate, one would not have predicted such a challenge.

     The first person to challenge the Hemsley will and claim the dead actor's estate was the deceased's half-brother and former manager, Richard Thornton. In his probate petition, the resident of Philadelphia questioned the will's authenticity by casting doubt on Hemsley's signature that "looked like a tracing." (I don't know if this was the opinion of a qualified forensic document examiner or Tornton's.)

     The second challenger to enter the probate battle was Hemsley's cousin, Reverend Michael George Wells, the minister at Philadelphia's Arch Street United Methodist Church. On August 16, 2012, Reverend Wells officiated at a memorial service held for his cousin at the Deliverance Evangelistic Church in North Philadelphia.

     By October 2012, because of the probate challenges, Sherman Hemsley's body had still not been buried. Probate court judge Patricia Chew scheduled a hearing for November 9, 2012 to resolve the dispute.

     A few weeks before the hearing, Reverend Wells, in speaking to a reporter with the El Paso Times, pointed out that Flora Bernal, the beneficiary, had not been on good terms with the deceased actor. When the reporter asked the reverend why he was going to such lengths over such a tiny estate, Reverend Wells said he believed Hemsley's estate was much larger than $50,000. "We are family," he said, "and we are not looking for money. But if we are entitled to something, we don't want anyone else to have it."

     As the probate hearing grew near, Reverend Michael Wells continued to wage his probate battle in public. To a Fox News correspondent he said, "What the media needs to know is that Sherman Hemsley's body being in the refrigerator for this amount of time is unnecessary and uncalled for. He could have been buried with his family within a week or ten days of his passing. His will...was found seven days after he died. No one reached out to me, my mother, or any person with a relationship to Sherman. In the beginning they said he died of natural causes. Then it came out he had cancer. [Cancer is a natural manner of death.] We have no knowledge of the doctors, hospitals, no one talked to us about his cancer....[Flora Bernal] knows my family, this is what perplexes me. I called there on June 1, and why did she not tell me Sherman was dying of cancer? There needs to be an investigation."

     On November 9, 2012, Judge Chew ruled that Sherman Hemsley's last will and testament was valid. That put an end to the probate challenges. On November 21, following a service at the Cielo Vista Church in El Paso, Mr. Hemsley was buried at the Fort Bliss National Cemetery.

     You can choose who to put in your will, but, as they say, you can't choose your relatives.     

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