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James Brown | The Estate Nightmare Continues

James Brown Estate Litigation.jpgPhoto Credit: Heinrich Klaffs

James Brown, the singer-songwriter, producer and so-called "Godfather of Soul" in a career that spanned 50 years, died on Christmas Day, 2006, almost exactly 12 years ago.

We wrote about Brown's case on the Hackard Law Blog more than four years ago, and yet, surprisingly, his estate remains unsettled.

Like a lot of celebrities we've profiled, Brown's personal life was complicated, which led to a messy estate. To this day, despite having amassed a fortune estimated at between $50 and $100 million, most of his beneficiaries have received nothing. The question you may be asking is, how could such a thing happen?

What's interesting about the Brown case is that it demonstrates how even when someone is very specific about bequests and beneficiaries, such wishes may hit roadblocks. Whenever the sums involved are large, challenges are almost inevitable.

Brown's will specified that most of his estate would be given to charities benefiting South Carolina and Georgia disadvantaged youth and that his 4th wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, and his nine children from multiple marriages, would get virtually nothing. Of course, there were immediate legal objections.

After three years of litigation, the Attorney General of South Carolina reached a settlement in 2009 that would have given half the estate to Brown's wife and children, with the rest going to his designated charities. In 2013, however, the South Carolina Supreme Court voided that settlement and reinstated his original will. Another partial settlement was reached by four of Brown's children in January 2016, but Brown's wife Hynie was not part of that settlement because it was unclear at that point whether her marriage to Brown was legally valid.

In July 2018, the South Carolina Court of Appeals declared that Hynie was legally married to Brown and that she was his surviving spouse, and therefore entitled to survivorship rights. At that point, the administrator of Brown's estate settled with Hynie, but it remains possible that Brown's other heirs will launch yet another appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

A major point of contention raised by Brown's children and grandchildren was whether Brown's on-going drug problems and emotional instability caused him to write a will that effectively cut most of them out. Brown did have a long history of arrests for drug and weapons possession, as well as domestic violence, so such arguments may be reasonable.

In the meantime, millions of dollars in legal fees continue to accrue, and a near-term resolution of this estate seems unlikely.

By the way, 12 years later, the stakes appear to be getting bigger. The value of Brown's intellectual property in the form of copyrights he retained as a songwriter continues to rise in value. According to MusicLinkUp Daily, when Ms. Hynie sold just 5 of Brown's 900+ compositions in 2015 to Warner/Chappell, she received nearly $2 million. The estate is most likely sitting on a treasure trove, which may only add to a further escalation of legal challenges.

Before you go, please let me know if you'd like to receive a free copy of my book, The Wolf at the Door. Just send your address in an email to me at [email protected], and I'll be glad to put one in the mail.

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