James Brown’s “Vague” Estate Plan Forced Family into Years of Litigation

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James Brown, the legendary singer, songwriter, record producer, dancer, and bandleader was known to many as the “Godfather of Soul.” Although he intended his estimated $100 million estate to provide for all of his children and grandchildren, his intentions were somewhat vague.  This forced his family into years of litigation which ended up in the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Everything Seemed In Order…

Brown signed his last will and testament in front of Strom Thurmond, Jr. in 2000. Along with the will that bequeathed personal assets such as clothing, cars, and jewelry, Brown created a separate, irrevocable trust which bequeathed music rights, business assets, and his South Carolina home.

At first glance, it seems as though everything in Brown’s estate plan was in order. In fact, he was very specific about most of his intentions, including:

  • Donating the majority of his music empire to an educational charity
  • Providing for each of his six adult living children (Terry Brown, Larry Brown, Daryl Brown, Yamma Brown Lumar, Deanna Brown Thomas and Venisha Brown)
  • Creating a family education fund for his grandchildren

However, only days after his death in 2006 from congestive heart failure, chaos erupted.

Heirs Not Happy With Charitable Donation

Apparently, Brown’s substantial charitable donations didn’t sit well with his heirs. Both his children and wife contested the estate.

  • His children filed a lawsuit against the personal representatives of Brown’s estate alleging impropriety and alleged mismanagement of Brown’s assets. (This was likely a protest of the charitable donation.)
  • Brown’s wife at the time, Tomi Rae Hynie, and the son they had together, received nothing as Brown never updated his will to reflect the marriage or birth. In her lawsuit, Hynie asked the court to recognize her as Brown’s widow and their son as an heir.

In the end, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld Brown’s plans to benefit charities and recognized Hynie and their son as an heir.

Should You Anticipate Litigation?

Brown’s estate was substantial and somewhat controversial – and he failed to update or communicate his intentions to his family.  His heirs were taken by surprise.  An experienced attorney could have avoided much of the family chaos.

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