Following James ‘the Godfather of Soul’ Brown’s death on Christmas Day, 25 December 2006 of congestive heart failure at the age of 73, an irrevocable trust document signed separately from his Last Will & Testament (made in 2000, six years before his death) bequeathed a large proportion of his estate (including a 60 acre Beech Island, South Carolina riverfront home, the rights to his name and music, and the business assets of James Brown Enterprises and reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars and growing annually thanks to the continued popularity of his music, not to mention its proliferation throughout advertising and hip-hop) to be held in a charitable trust, the ‘I Feel Good Trust’, which was tasked with providing scholarships to disadvantaged young people in South Carolina (where he was born) and Georgia (where he grew up), with the remainder consisting of $2 million in scholarships for seven of his grandchildren and approximately $2 million divided amongst six of his children (including a clause stating that any heir who contested the Will would be disinherited).
However Brown’s colourful lifestyle left a trail of failed marriages, estranged children (he acknowledged nine children and DNA tests show he fathered at least three more) as well as brushes with Government and Law Enforcement which have resulted in the trust having been unable to distribute the funds to its intended recipients.
Some of his children are contesting a Will made by the superstar performer, or at least the trust which deals with the distribution of the bulk of the estate and in which they were largely ignored, arguing that Brown, who had widely publicised drug problems, had been unduly influenced by his management and legal representatives who, they say, stood to gain from what was claimed to be his diminished mental capacity. The claimants’ lawyers contested that previous versions of Brown’s Will show that it was not his intent to bequeath the majority of his estate to charity.
In addition, the Will and the trust are being contested by Tommie Rae Hynie, a former backup singer for James Brown who married him in 2001 despite already being married to another man. This lead to Brown filing for an annulment in 2004, an action that was later allowed to lapse after Ms Hynie signed an agreement promising never to claim she had been his common-law wife. Ms Hynie also signed a pre-nuptial agreement renouncing her interest in Brown’s estate. Neither the Will nor the trust named Ms Hynie or her son, James Brown Jr. perhaps because they were made several months before the birth of James Brown Jr. and over a year before their marriage. Lawyers for the estate insist that Ms Hynie is not entitled to inherit because the marriage was not legally valid.
This legal action resulted in the South Carolina government seizing control of the estate and redistributing its assets. During the course of the contest, the Executors resigned or were replaced, court instructions went unfollowed and millions of dollars were distributed to creditors and lawyers, but not to the intended beneficiaries of Brown’s Will.
James Brown’s philanthropic interest in education was reportedly and in his own accounts inspired by his difficult childhood. Born in a single room ‘shack’, James Brown was abandoned to an aunt who ran a brothel in Augusta, Georgia. He worked the streets for pennies and spent much of his early childhood in the midst of racial segregation living in unimaginable poverty. These difficulties meant that he dropped out of school in the seventh grade, something which seems to have stayed with him throughout his life, despite his exceptional success.
Louis Levenson, the lawyer representing four of Brown’s children is quoted as saying “Our position is that Brown did not make a valid will… He was highly influenced by the people who were closest to him, who had the most to gain by the creation of the charitable trust.”
Later, the South Carolina Supreme Court threw out the previous settlement, describing the state’s involvement in the administration of Brown’s estate as “an unprecedented misdirection of authority that led to the total dismemberment of Brown’s carefully crafted estate plan and its resurrection in a form that grossly distorts his intent.” The court decided that there was no evidence that James Brown had been unduly influenced, or that the will was anything other than a true expression of his intentions.
When control of the estate was transferred to the attorney general’s administrator in 2009, it was valued by the executors at $86 million. Reportedly, this figure was based on offers said to have been made to purchase the rights to the 800 plus songs written or controlled by Brown, as well as the many albums he recorded during his long career. The estate’s value is also growing continuously due to James Brown’s posthumous earning power – Take for example the tens of millions of dollars that other deceased superstars such as Elvis Presley and John Lennon continue to generate each year and Forbes Magazine’s estimate of Brown’s estate’s earnings of $5 million between October 2006 and October 2007.
Calling himself ‘the hardest working man in show business’ and performing up to 352 days a year, James Brown’s legacy lives on in the form of not only his music, but a number of feature films chronicling his life. One in particular, 2014’s $25 million ‘Get on Up’ – A biography chronicling his rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history, starring Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis and Dan Aykroyd directed by Tate Taylor was produced by none other than Mick Jagger, who acknowledges James Brown’s influence (as do many others including Michael Jackson and Prince) and spent eight years trying to get the film released.
Reportedly, Brown was never particularly close to his children, something illustrated by the fact that, later in his life, they apparently had to make an appointment to see him. He was adamant that they would not benefit from his wealth after his death. This was reportedly made clear during a 1988 business meeting when Brown was asked, “What about your own children?” Brown is said to have pointed his finger in the questioners face and screamed, “Don’t you ever tell me what to do with my money! They will not ride on my back when I’m gone.”
One of Brown’s children, Daryl Brown later expressed regret that he did not follow his father’s wishes as expressed in his Will and trust and shared his concern that his daughters may never receive the education their grandfather intended to bequeath them. Had Brown’s wishes, as expressed in his Will and trust been carried out, a $285,000 education fund would have been created for each of Daryl’s daughters.
Going Legal Limited has been established for over 20 years, during which time we have been successful in recovering many millions of pounds for our clients. Unlike other firms we welcome complex and difficult cases and specialise in Contesting a Will on a genuine No-Win, No-Fee basis.
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