Jan 10, 2015

James Brown's complicated life led to complicated estate problems

He was the Godfather of Soul, the Founding Father of Funk. James Brown had fortune, fame, frequent run-ins with the law, and a family life  more convoluted than most. So perhaps it's not surprising that the late entertainer's estate problems have been every bit as complicated and torturous as his life.

When Brown died he was married - maybe - to his back-up singer Tomi Rae Hynie. He had filed previously for annulment of the marriage, claiming Hynie was still married to another man when she tied the knot with Brown. However, Brown dropped the action when Hynie signed a form stating she would never claim to be his common-law wife. She also signed a prenuptial agreement waiving all rights to his estate. Brown had other marriages in his past, too, several of which produced the six children he recognized. 

Update Jan. 23, 2015: A South Carolina judge has ruled that Brown and Hynie were married at the time of Brown's death, making her his legal heir. However, that does not necessarily mean she will inherit any of the estate, since she waived her rights in a pre-nupital agreement.

Prior to marrying Tomi Rae and the birth of their son, James II, Brown executed a will. Signed on August 1, 2000, it earmarked the bulk of his estate -- estimates of its value vary from $5 million to nearly $90 million - to be placed in a trust to fund education for needy children. (Brown himself had not made it past seventh grade.) He left $2 million to his grandchildren, to be used for their education, and left his personal property to be divided among his six children. There was no mention of Tomi Rae. He appointed as his executors (called personal representatives in Florida) his attorney, his accountant, and a retired judge. Brown also left an audiotape explaining his wishes. 

Brown, a South Carolina resident, died in 2006 from congestive heart failure, and a flurry of lawsuits followed soon after. Tomi Rae claimed that she was James' widow, and that she and her son were entitled to some of the estate assets. Other children sued the estate for a bigger piece of the pie, claiming that the singer's judgment was hampered by drug use and that he had been unduly influenced by the executors, who were mismanaging funds. 

By 2008 the legal situation was so out of hand that South Carolina's Attorney General stepped in, saying it was his office's duty to protect charitable trusts like the one that Brown's estate plan sought to establish. The Attorney General formulated a plan to distribute the assets as follows: half to the charitable trust; one quarter to Hymie; and one quarter to Brown's children. A new executor was appointed, too.

The morass dragged on and in 2013 the Attorney General's plan was struck down by the South Carolina Supreme Court, ruling that the Attorney General had overstepped his legal authority, and that there was no evidence to support the conclusion that the will was anything but a true expression of Brown's wishes. The Attorney General's actions would "undermine any confidence citizens may have in their ability to do with their personal assets as they wish..." the court concluded. The court also questioned the ethics of the original three executors, but did not find that sufficient reason to invalidate the will.

So what did the Supreme Court decision resolve? To date, not much. More lawsuits are pending. The lower court has not yet complied with the State Supreme Court's ruling to appoint new executors. Several children want the Attorney General's prior plan reinstated. Even Brown's body is in limbo, temporarily located at a mausoleum on the property of one of his children. It had been his wish to be interred at his home on Beech Island in South Carolina, which his adult children want to turn into a tourist attraction. But until the estate is settled, Brown's body remains where it is. The estate is continuing to make money from the singer's music, but the only ones benefiting from the debacle are, you guessed it, the lawyers.

Although there is no way to make anyone's estate 100% lawsuit-proof, there are additional steps that Brown, given his unique situation, could have taken. Had he been my client, I would have advised him to revise his will after his marriage to Hynie and after the birth of his son. Mindful of his history of drug use, I would have counseled him to have his capacity confirmed by a mental health professional just before the execution of his will.

Thankfully, most of us lead lives far more conventional than Brown's. Most of us don't leave millions behind, either. Still, with today's divorces, remarriages and blended families, creating a sound estate plan that avoids legal challenges requires thoughtful planning. When it comes to matters involving family and money - in any amount - one must always be mindful of Murphy's Law, to wit, if anything can go wrong, it probably will. That is why it is essential for your estate plan to have every i dotted, every t crossed. Your estate plan must speak for you, unambiguously, when you can no longer speak for yourself.

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