The battle over the James Brown estate, the Godfather of Soul, started not long after James Brown died of heart failure and pneumonia on Christmas Day, 2006, at the age of 73. Now, more than six years later, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that may finally lay the epic feud to rest.
Brown left behind a detailed will and trust, dated August 1, 2000. He wanted his personal and household effects divided between six adult children, the sum of two million dollars set aside in trust to pay for the education of his grandchildren, with the rest passing into a charitable trust. Specifically, he directed that the majority of his assets would be used to pay education expenses and assistance to benefit poor children and young adults who attended schools in either South Carolina or Georgia.
Brown was both physically and mentally strong when he signed his estate planning documents. His legal documents included clear instructions that he did not want anyone else to benefit, including past or future spouses, or others who may or may not be his children. He directed his trustees to vigorously fight anyone who contested his wishes, and he considered any type of legal challenge to the validity of the documents as an affront to his wishes.
Despite these seemingly clear wishes, Brown’s heirs did challenge the validity of his will and trust. His children sued, accusing the James Brown estate planning attorney who prepared the documents, and others, of undue influence. A woman named Tommie Rae Hynie also filed suit. She claimed to be his wife — married after the documents were created — and believed she was entitled to one-third of his estate as a “pretermitted spouse.” To complicate it further, Hynie alleged her son, James Brown II, should also receive a share of the estate, because he was James Brown’s son, born after the will and trust were signed.
Under South Carolina law, as with other states, a spouse married after estate planning documents were created, as well as an after-born child, can claim a portion of the estate. But, if the will or trust shows a clear intent that these types of heirs should still be excluded then the claims would fail. Additionally, Hynie and Brown signed a prenuptial agreement, through which Hynie disclaimed any rights to make a claim against his estate or trust.
To make Hynie’s claims even murkier, there was a big question of whether Hynie and Brown were legally married. Hynie was previously married before Brown, and had that marriage annulled (claiming the man only married her for a green card). But that marriage was annulled years afterHynie and Brown said their weddings vows. Brown filed to annul his marriage to Hynie when he learned of the other marriage. That case was settled, and Brown and Hynie had an on-again, off-again relationship until he died.
Hynie’s claims, as well as those of the other heirs who alleged undue influence, created enough confusion to attract the attention of the South Carolina Attorney General. His office is charged with the legal responsibility of protecting charitable trusts like the one created by Brown. The Attorney General interceded and brokered a settlement that recognized Hynie and her son as legitimate heirs (without even a DNA test). The compromise awarded approximately 25% of Brown’s assets to Hynie, another 25% to Brown’s six children as named in his will, plus James Brown II, with only one-half remaining for charity. The Attorney General’s settlement also gave his office the power to control the administration of the charitable trust.
This settlement was approved by the probate judge, after a series of court hearings to determine if the settlement was appropriate, in early 2009. Through the settlement, the two acting trustees of Brown’s charitable trust were removed from their position. They appealed, arguing that the settlement was against Brown’s clear wishes.
This week, almost four years later, the South Carolina Supreme Court dropped its bomb on the Attorney General’s office. It ruled that the settlement was not “just and reasonable” and in fact the heirs’ claims that started the legal battle were not made in good faith to begin with. The Supreme Court ruled, “The compromise orchestrated by the AG in this case destroys the estate plan Brown had established in favor of an arrangement overseen virtually exclusively by the AG.” The Court determined the Attorney General’s actions were unprecedented and contrary to his legal duty to protect and enforce charitable trusts.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court wrote a separate opinion that accused the Attorney General of “effecting a total takeover of James Brown’s estate.” He feared that allowing this sort of compromise would “undermine any confidence citizens may have in their ability to do with their personal assets as they wish, leading to a chilling effect on future testators” who wished to leave bequests to charity.
This ruling marks an important victory for those who value the right of individuals to leave their property to who they want, how they want, and when they want, through proper estate planning. While courts often favor settlements as the preferred way to end a legal dispute, settlements should not come at the cost of undermining the wishes of the person who died.
It’s truly sad that James Brown’s wishes have been undermined for so long. The amount of money spent on legal fees (which easily will reach into the millions), and the time lost to needy children in South Carolina and Georgia, cannot be replaced. Brown’s wishes have sat unfulfilled for more than six years now.
It’s especially troubling that this entire fight over James Brown estate could have been avoided. While Brown did many things right with his estate planning — creating a detailed and specific set of documents and a prenuptial agreement when he wed Hynie — he still could have done more.
Brown should have updated his documents after marrying Hynie and after James Brown II was born. If his wishes were consistent with his original documents, he still could have signed simple amendments indicating that he did not wish Hynie or the son to inherit. If he did want them to receive something from his estate, he could have made that clear as well.
Additionally, the Supreme Court’s ruling also discussed how the estate planning attorney and the three people Brown originally named as trustees all had turned out to be ethically questionable, to put it mildly. The drafting attorney landed in jail for unrelated violence. The three original trustees were removed from their positions, and were found to lack credibility, amid misappropriation of trust assets and other misdeeds. The Supreme Court was troubled by these circumstances, but did not view them as substantial enough to create a valid reason to change Brown’s estate planning documents.
This underscores the importance of working with the right estate planning attorneys and choosing trustees and executors who are — above all else — trustworthy. While Brown may not have known of the ethical problems of these four advisers, there are too many instances of people trusting the wrong people to serve in these important roles. This problem afflicts the rich and famous, as well as those of more modest means, far more often than it should.
Everyone can draw lessons from this James Brown estate battle. Estate planning documents always should be updated with important life events like marriages or the birth of children, and choosing the right estate planning attorney and trustees are critically important — even for those who don’t have millions.
About Danielle & Andy Mayoras, Trust & Estate Attorneys