The “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” probably would have been exhausted just hearing about all of the infighting over his will. Eleven years after James Brown’s death, his estate is still a battleground for his heirs and would-be heirs. The infighting over Brown’s fortune may be a study in chaos, but there are some valuable estate-planning lessons to be learned.
Brown wanted the bulk of the estate to be given to the “I Feel Good” Trust, which he set up to distribute scholarships for children from South Carolina and Georgia. Yet more than a dozen lawsuits related to the estate have been filed since Brown died in 2006 at age 73. The Supreme Court of South Carolina has weighed in on the disputes several times.
Several people are contesting Brown’s will, including individuals who were executors of the estate but were later removed, and James Brown II, who is seeking the right to be legally viewed as Brown’s son and heir. Brown II’s mother, Tommie Rae Hynie, is currently fighting to be recognized as the late music icon’s legal widow. Most recently, in January 2018, nine of Brown’s children and grandchildren sued Hynie in a California federal court over copyrights to songs Brown wrote.
To say that the Godfather of Soul led a full life is an understatement. Married four times, Brown fathered nine children through marriage and at least three children outside of marriage. He had strained relationships with several of them. His last marriage was clouded by accusations that Hynie was still married to another man when she wed Brown in 2001.
When Brown wrote his will in 2000, he left his personal effects to six of his children, $2 million to pay for his grandchildren’s education, and put the rest of his estate in the “I Feel Good” Trust, created to benefit disadvantaged youth, according to a February article in The New York Times.
Hynie and others challenged the will. Then the attorney general of South Carolina got involved, because much of the estate was promised to a charitable organization in the state. Henry McMaster, now South Carolina’s governor, proposed a new distribution in an attempt to satisfy Brown’s children and Hynie, but the state Supreme Court rejected the proposal as flying in the face of Brown’s wishes, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, there is no consensus on how much Brown’s estate is actually worth, with estimates ranging from $5 million to $100 million.
In hindsight, here are a few ways things might have been done to best avoid or mitigate the impact of litigation:
Update the will when life changes occur. When Brown married Hynie a year after making his will in 2000, he should have amended the document to include his new wife and any children they had.
Acknowledge family dysfunction. Brown specifically left some of his children out of the will, practically guaranteeing the will would be challenged. Including all of his offspring in some way may have helped keep the peace. It’s also not clear how well Brown communicated his intentions with respect to certain of his heirs and not others, and whether he made those intentions known to others to protect the validity of the will and his intentions to disinherit certain children.
Get a handle on how much the estate is worth. Some of the litigation filed involves the ownership of copyrights in Brown’s music. Getting an accurate account of Brown’s fortune and clarifying who owns what related to Brown’s catalog of songs might have headed off some of the financial squabbling. Proper planning with respect to those rights is crucial.
Finally, naming an experienced fiduciary with expertise in the music industry, particularly with music royalties and rights, as Brown’s executor may have been a good bet to wrangle his large family and complicated assets.