By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Former child star Gary Coleman's ex-wife failed to prove she had lived with him as a common law spouse even after their divorce, a Utah judge has ruled, in a move that could strip her of rights to the "Diff'rent Strokes" actor's estate.
Coleman, whose spunky personality, pudgy cheeks and comic timing at age 10 made him a prime time sensation in 1978, died two years ago at age 42 after suffering a brain hemorrhage in an accidental fall at his Utah home.
He died after being taken off of life support - a decision made by his former wife, Shannon Price.
At issue now is which of Coleman's multiple wills should govern the distribution of assets, and a ruling designating Price as his common law wife would have boosted her claim to his estate, including rights to his cremated remains and the use of the star's name.
"There is simply insufficient credible evidence to conclude that they were more than occasional roommates," Judge James R. Taylor ruled late on Monday, saying she failed to prove her relationship met Utah's standards for common-law marriage.
Price testified last week that she and Coleman had changed their mind about divorce and had continued to live together, sharing expenses, filing joint taxes, caring for each other when ill and maintaining a sexual relationship. Price said they decided against remarrying to avoid any publicity.
But Taylor ruled that while the couple may have assumed some joint responsibilities, many aspects of the relationship fell short of what is expected in a marriage.
Taylor noted that witness testimony indicated Price had moved in and out of Coleman's home and that the couple had exhibited little affection publicly.
The ruling also cited testimony that Price pursued a relationship with another man in 2009 and that Coleman sought a 2010 restraining order to keep her from entering the home.
Coleman played Arnold Jackson, the younger of two black 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 bid to become California governor in a recall election ultimately won by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Coleman and Price met in 2005, during the Utah filming of the movie "Church Ball." They married in 2007, but secretly obtained a divorce a year later.
A handwritten amendment to Coleman's will drafted in 2007 named Price as his sole heir. The document said it replaced a 2005 will that named Coleman's friend Anna Gray, the chief of his corporation, as the estate's executor and only beneficiary.
Gray, who represented herself during a two-day bench trial, claimed Price's claim to the estate was voided by the couple's divorce. Gray welcomed the ruling, saying she believes it clears the way for a ruling that formally awards her Coleman's estate.
"With a little luck, I hope to be able to take care of Gary's remains and handle his affairs according to his specifications," Gray told Reuters in an email.
A telephone message seeking comment from Price's attorneys was not returned on Tuesday morning.
(Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)
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