The Jeffersons' Sherman Hemsley Left Unburied for Months as Half-Brother Waited for DNA Test Results
Beloved actor Sherman Hemsley died at the age of 74. Instead of his burial being dignified, his body remained in the morgue for over two months due to a dispute launched by his half-brother, Richard Thornton.
Actor Sherman Hemsley died in his home in El Paso, Texas, at the age of 74. A news release revealed that the cause of his death was superior vena cava syndrome, a complication associated with lung and bronchial carcinomas. He was not buried for more than a month after his death because of a dispute around his will.
Hemsley wrote a will shortly before he died in which he left Flora Enchinton as the sole heir to his entire estate. Enchinton described herself as Hemsley's manager and his partner and best friend. The will also describe Enchinton as his "beloved partner."
A MAN CLAIMING TO BE HEMSLEY'S HALF BROTHER CHALLENGES THE WILL
Hemsley's body lay in the morgue, locked away after a man named Richard Thornton claimed to be his half-brother, even though Hemsley's biographical information showed him to be an only child. Hemsley was diagnosed with a large mass in his right lung two months before death.
“Sherman left very worried about me, about me staying alone, what was going to happen me being alone if he was gone. That’s what worried him the most. I guess maybe he sensed what was going to happen.”
Enchinton called the matter "disgraceful" and said she had never heard of the man who claimed to be Hemsley's half-brother. Thornton's claims halted Hemsley's burial and memorial services. Thornton requested all of Hemsley's possessions as well as his frozen body.
Enchinton said, "The emotional thing is you wake up thinking he's still frozen out there." Thornton refused to comment on the case he launched. Court documents indicated that Hemsley's estate is worth more than $50,000. Thornton's daughter, however, claimed that he didn't come for the money but wanted to bury Hemsley in Philadelphia, where he grew up.
THORNTON QUESTIONS HEMSLEY'S STATE OF MIND
Six weeks before Hemsley died, he signed a new will bestowing his entire estate to Enchinton. Thornton claimed that Hemsley may not have been sane when signing the will before dying. "He came to bury his brother," Thornton's daughter said. "And they turned the whole thing into a three-ring circus."
Thornton questioned why Hemsley took instructions from the lawyer. He also asked the attorney and notary who did Hemsley's will, suggesting that Hemsley may not have been of sound mind when he signed the document. His lawyer disagreed, saying, "At no point did I ever suspect he lacked capacity, based on my 50 years of experience as a lawyer."
Thornton claimed that his half-brother was born from an extramarital affair and added that he was Hemsley's only family and deserved his estate. "I asked about family in Philadelphia, about wanting to go back. He said no. He said Flora was his family," he said. He added that he wanted to give Hemsley a military burial.
DNA TEST WAS MADE TO PROVE THE RELATIVE CONNECTION
Four years his senior, a judge ordered that a DNA test be conducted to prove Thornton's relation to Hemsley. "I have never heard of anyone with the name of Richard Thornton in the 20 years I have known Sherman. This is not what Sherman would have wanted," Enchinton said.
Hemsley and Thornton never contacted one another during Christmas and other significant holidays, but Thornton claimed that he publicly acknowledged him as his brother during a concert in 2011. But Enchinton disputed that she was present at the show and argued that this announcement never occurred. The DNA test eventually proved that Thornton and Hemsley were half-brothers.
SHERMAN HEMSLEY LAID TO REST AFTER MORE THAN 100 DAYS
Despite the DNA results showing that Thornton was half-brothers with Hemsley, the judge concluded that his will was valid because he was a wholly oriented person at the time of the signing. The judge also confirmed that since Enchinton was named the sole heir, she could decide where to bury the body.
Under Texas law, as in most states, the person who dies can name a person to handle burial arrangements. This is usually confirmed in a will. But at the end of the court case, both parties agreed on where to bury Hemsley's body, but it took three and a half months to reach the mutual decision.
Both parties agreed that Hemsley would be buried in a military procession because he served in the United States Air Force. Enchinton claimed that Thornton released false facts during that trial. "They were bringing up untrue facts, and it was sad because Sherman had to suffer for it," she said.
BATTLE CONTINUED IN COURT FOR TWO MORE YEARS
Two years after his death, Thornton continued to fight the matter in court, where he claimed that Hemsley's body should be exhumed. Thornton's attorney claimed he filed an appeal after a judge ordered that Enchinton decide how to bury Hemsley's body. Thornton argued that since Enchinton was not Hemsley's blood relative, she could not determine what to do with Hemsley's remains.
At the end of the case, the judge decided that Hemsley's body remained where it was buried. Although the judge agreed to hear Thornton's appeal based on the matter of establishing a right to inherit, Hemsley's body should remain where it was buried because it was unnecessary to dig his body out and bury it in another place.