Contesting a will is trickier than it looks on TV.
As it happens, this was a lesson learned by Richard Thornton, the man claiming to be the half-brother of actor Sherman Hemsley — best known as the cantankerous Upper East Sider George Jefferson. In Hemsley’s will, written six weeks before his death, he left everything to his “beloved partner,” Flora Enchinton Bernal, making her sole beneficiary of his estate.
Shortly thereafter, when Hemsley succumbed to lung cancer in 2012, Thornton came forward. Though Enchinton said she’d never heard of this man, he not only demanded his share of Hemsley’s estate saying he was the surviving relative, he laid claim to the actor’s body, putting the brakes on his burial. After a prolonged battle — one that delayed Hemsley’s internment for four months — the alleged brother’s suit was tossed.
But say you are indeed a disinherited relative or a person who feels entitled to someone’s estate, what’s your recourse if you’re not in the will? The answer is that in order to contest a will, you have to be an “Interested Party,” i.e., a person who was named in a previous will or would have inherited money if there was no will (such as a relative).
You don’t just get to challenge a will because you don’t like what you got (or didn’t get). And you have to have a legally accepted reason such as the person was not of sound mind when he wrote it, someone exerted undue influence to get favorable terms, fraud or improper execution.
The “I’m sure I just slipped the person’s mind” rationale won’t fly. If you can prove that the person was suffering from dementia (as opposed to mean-spiritedness) or was in a compromised state and convinced to change the will by a nefarious third party, you likely have a good claim and should consult an attorney.
The key, of course, is to make sure you and your family members create a will when you’re of sound mind because dying without a will can cause even more headaches for your loved ones during an already difficult time.
Amy E. Feldman, Esq. is a nationally syndicated legal radio correspondent, and a frequent contributor to television news programming in the Philadelphia area. She is also the General Counsel of The Judge Group, Inc. She and her sister, Robin Epstein, are co-authors of the book, “So Sue Me, Jackass: Avoiding Legal Pitfalls That Can Come Back To Bite You At Work, At Home, And At Play,” published by Plume. Robin Epstein teaches sitcom writing at NYU and is a contributor to This American Life. Her latest project is Your Legacy Book.