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Sherman Hemsley Will Contest Thrown Out

EL PASO, Texas (CN) - The estate of actor Sherman Hemsley, who famously played television's George Jefferson, will pass to his longtime friend and business manager, an appeals court ruled.

Hemsley, who never married or had children, died on July 24, 2012, from lung cancer at the age of 74. About a month earlier, Hemsley had executed a will that named Flora Bernal, his business manager for the last 20 years, as the independent executrix and sole beneficiary of his estate.

Bernal had been living with the actor, whose most famous role originated on "All in the Family" and spun off into "The Jeffersons," in El Paso for the last 16 years.

When Bernal tried to give Hemsley a military funeral at Fort Bliss in accordance with his wishes, however, the medical examiner's office refused to release the remains to Bernal.

An attempt by that office to locate Hemsley's next of kin led it to a man named Richard Thornton, Hemsley's half-brother.

When Bernal Applied to probate Hemsley's will, Thornton filed a challenge and demanded that he be allowed to bury Hemsley at the Washington National Crossing Cemetery in Pennsylvania.

Though DNA testing proved that Richard and Hemsley were both the sons of William Alexander Thornton, the probate court sided with Bernal.

The court rejected claims by Thornton and that man's son, Robert, that Hemsley was not of sound mind when he made the will. Richard had testified that his father was a Methodist minister who had an affair with Hemsley's mother, and that Hemsley took his mother's maiden name to spare the Thornton family embarrassment.

The Texas Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court's findings on Nov. 12.

Though the Thorntons had challenged the disposition of Hemsley's remains, the appellate court found this issue moot since they allowed Bernal to have Hemsley buried at Fort Bliss in El Paso.

The probate court relied on legally and factually sufficient evidence in finding that Hemsley had testamentary capacity to make his will, according to the ruling.

Indeed the attorney who drafted drafted Hemsley's medical power of attorney after the actor decided to refuse chemotherapy and radiation treatment said Hemsley also wanted him to draft the will leaving everything to Bernal.

The attorney testified that Hemsley was of sound mind and not in any apparent pain or under sedation, but that he "declined to draft the will because he anticipated there would be a will contest given that Hemsley was a celebrity and he feared it would overwhelm his firm," according to the ruling by Chief Justice Ann McClure.

All witnesses who saw Hemsley sign the will he drafted with another attorney testified that Hemsley did not appear sedated or in any pain when he did so.

One witness testified how Hemsley "at one point ... even glanced over at Bernal and jokingly made a face indicating he understood the will and he wanted [the attorney] to get on with it," the ruling states.

This witness said "Hemsley had his normal faculties and understood the will and what he was doing," according to the ruling. "He recalled that Hemsley expressly stated that he wanted Bernal to have everything."

The nurse who cared for Hemsley in the hospital testified that Hemsley was always alert.

One judge on the four-member panel did not take part in the decision, which was otherwise unanimous.

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