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James Brown's Nightmare Estate Dispute

James Brown performs at Falcons Game In matters of estate litigation, disputes between parties to a will often become tangled and contentious. With the case of the James Brown estate, however, we can safely assert that the scale and acrimony involved are several orders of magnitude greater than your run-of-the-mill will contest

Brown, popularly known as the "Godfather of Soul," died in 2006, leaving behind ex-spouses as well as several children from different marriages. As the New York Times points out in a recent article, the funk singer's life may have been disorderly, but his 2000 will was quite straightforward: the bulk of his estate was to be devoted to educating underprivileged children in Georgia, where he was born, and his resident South Carolina, through the I Feel Good Foundation. Yet not a dime of the funds has been distributed to any of these children.

Why the holdup? Brown's estate, which could be valued upward of $86 million with potential copyright sales included, has since been contested by a number of parties, from the performer's ex-wives to his children, all claiming a generous portion well beyond what had been designated to them in his will. This was supposedly a case of undue influence on Brown by the executors, who would benefit from the arrangement. And for a while they made significant headway in the case, even causing the state of South Carolina to take control of the estate's administration in 2008, voiding the previous will and undertaking arduous negotiations to forge a new one.

Last year, however, the South Carolina Supreme Court was forced to step in and reinstated Brown's original will. The Supreme Court found that Brown was not under any undue influence, and upbraided the state attorney general's office for "unprecedented misdirection" of authority for nullifying the singer's will and his original intent. The only people benefitting from any of this rather spurious probate process were attorneys engaged in litigation for claimants to the estate, some of whom sought to transform Brown's mansion into a Graceland-style theme park. Brown's body, temporarily housed in a mausoleum, hasn't even received final burial.

When a fortune's at stake, it's truly unfortunate that estate issues begin to resemble vultures fighting for the choicest pieces of a carcass, with the state even getting in on the act. As Virginia Meeks Shuman, law professor at Charleston School of Law remarked,

It's pernicious...This idea that you can just completely disregard the testator's wishes is fine if we are going to live in a country where people don't have a right to say what happens with their assets when they die.

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