Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Utah judge to decide fate of child TV star Gary Coleman's estate

PROVO, Utah (Reuters) - Two years after child television star Gary Coleman's death, the fate of his estate rests with a Utah judge following a battle over competing wills waged between Coleman's ex-wife and his longtime friend and business associate.

At issue is which of Coleman's multiple wills should govern the distribution of assets - primarily consisting of his cremated remains, future rights to the "Diff'rent Strokes" star's name and other intellectual properties.

Coleman's spunky personality, pudgy cheeks and comic timing made him a prime time sensation at the age of 10 with the debut of the sitcom in 1978.

He played Arnold Jackson, the younger of two African-American siblings from Harlem adopted by a wealthy white widower. The show ran for six seasons on NBC and two on ABC. Coleman's oft-repeated line, "Whatchu talking about Willis?" became his trademark and a pop-culture catch phrase.

The diminutive actor, whose growth was stunted by a congenital kidney defect, sued his parents in 1989 for mishandling his finances and ended up making commercials and working as a security guard as his celebrity faded. In 2003, he launched a quixotic bid to become California governor in a recall election ultimately won by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The decision over his estate turns on whether Judge James Taylor believes Coleman's continued relationship with former wife Shannon Price after their divorce constituted a common-law marriage.

"Maybe they defined themselves as husband and wife when it suited them," Taylor said on Tuesday, following a day and a half of he-said, she-said testimony from the couple's friends, acquaintances, family and neighbors.

Taylor took the matter under advisement at the end of the bench trial and did not indicate when he might issue a ruling.

Coleman died at age 42 on May 28, 2010, two days after an accidental fall at his home in Santaquin, Utah, about 60 miles south of Salt Lake City. Coleman suffered a brain hemorrhage in the fall and lapsed into a coma. He died after being taken off of life support - a decision made by Price.

The couple met in Utah in 2005 during filming of the movie "Church Ball" and married in 2007. They quietly divorced in 2008.

Wills for Coleman's estate were drafted in both 1999 and 2005. The latter names Anna Gray, a longtime friend and chief executive officer of his company, as his executor and heir.

An amendment hand-written by Coleman in 2007, however, names Price as his sole heir and states that the document should supersede any previous wills.

"I made this change of free will and was not coerced in any way," states the note, dated September 4, 2007, which was included in court papers filed by Price's lawyers in the months after Coleman's death. "This I have done because of my personal selfishness and my weakness, and I love her with all my heart."

In court testimony, Price said she and Coleman changed their minds about their divorce, and thus continued to live together and treat each other as married until his death. She said they shared living expenses, filed joint tax returns, cared for each other when ill and maintained a sexual relationship.

Price said she and Coleman decided not to remarry because they wanted to avoid any publicity.

But Gray, who represented herself in court, said Price has a financial incentive for publicly characterizing the relationship as a happy marriage. She called multiple witnesses who said they knew Coleman and Price were divorced and who had seen Price humiliate Coleman in public through teasing and other behavior.

Brandi Buys, who met Coleman and Price through a mutual friend, said she had visited the Santaquin house several times in 2009 and that it "wasn't a secret" that the couple had separate bedrooms. She said she never saw the couple show any affection for each other.

(Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)

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