The Ongoing Battle over the James Brown Estate
By: Law Office of Gem McDowell, P.A
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The Ongoing Battle over the James Brown Estate
The Godfather of Soul James Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina in 1933 and went on to become one of the greatest figures in music of the 20th century in a career that spanned six decades. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was one of the first to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Brown left an indelible mark on music and was a huge influence on generations of musicians that came after him.
These days, his legacy also includes a very complicated estate. Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006 at the age of 73, leaving behind assets in the millions (the exact value hasn’t been disclosed) and an estate that’s been contested ever since.
The Estate of James Brown
Brown executed a will in 2000 in South Carolina and later that year had an irrevocable trust created, too. His assets were to be divided in part among his six living children. (Brown was married four times and acknowledged nine children as his, three of whom have since died, but DNA testing has shown he fathered more children. They were not named in the will.) Another substantial part of his estate was to go into a charitable and educational trust, the I Feel Good Trust, for the benefit of children in South Carolina and Georgia.
Several lawsuits have been filed by various parties over the years, and no distributions from the estate have occurred, either to Brown’s heirs or to the intended beneficiaries of the educational trust. The New York Times published an article in early 2018 covering much of the history of fighting over Brown’s estate, which you can read here.
One lawsuit of particular interest is the one the South Carolina Court of Appeals published an opinion on in May 2019. That’s because it required the court to interpret the law de novo, or for the first time, while courts usually rely heavily on precedent in their findings.
The background to this particular lawsuit is this: Several of Brown’s children and grandchildren (referred to as the Respondents) contested the Will and Trust. In 2015, the Respondents and the Fiduciaries of the estate reached a settlement wherein each of the Respondents would receive a payment of $37,500 in return for dismissing their claims to contest the Will and Trust. Importantly, they’d retain all their other rights and the Will and Trust would not be altered by the terms of the settlement.
Before the settlement was confirmed, two of Brown’s children, Terry Brown and Darryl Brown, who had not contested the Will and Trust, opposed the settlement. After a circuit court found the settlement was just and reasonable, Terry Brown appealed.
It’s well established in case law that it’s acceptable for the heirs of an estate to make an agreement dividing the assets among themselves in a way that’s different than the will outlines, as long they all agree to it. But the Brown estate was different, since only some of the heirs were part of the settlement, not all of them. Terry argued that under South Carolina law, all the successors must consent to and approve of a settlement, and he didn’t consent to it, so therefore the settlement should not be considered valid.
However, the Court of Appeals looked at the law (specifically, Section 62-3-912) and held that his consent wasn’t necessary. The settlement didn’t seek to alter the amount of assets any successor was entitled to under the Will, and in fact specifically preserved the Estate Plan as is.
The Court also looked at Sections 62-3-1101 and 62-3-1102 and found that his approval wasn’t necessary, either. The settlement was not binding to Terry or to any other party that was not involved in the settlement. It, again, did not impact Terry or anyone else with an interest in the estate. To quote the Court, “He will receive precisely the same thing under the Will and Trust that he would have received had Respondents never challenged the Estate plan.”
Furthermore, the Court notes that it is unable to allow a successor who’s not part of the settlement to veto the settlement when it does not affect nor bind him. “This of course we cannot do, and Appellant’s position would allow a holdout successor to force the Fiduciaries to engage in the very thing [the law] is intended to avoid: dissipating the Estate in wasteful litigation.”
Complex Estate Planning
While the estate of James Brown is particularly complicated, all estate planning requires thoughtfulness, thoroughness, and attention to detail. That’s exactly what estate planning attorney Gem McDowell and his associatess provide when you work with them on your estate plan. Not having an estate plan, or having one that’s outdated (like Brown’s), can create a plethora of problems for your heirs. Contact the Gem McDowell Law Group to schedule your free consultation and take the first step towards peace of mind. Call 843-284-1021 today.