James Brown was the Godfather of Soul. He composed over 1,200 pieces of music, many of which have gone on to entertain the world. This allowed the star to amass a significant fortune, and he accounted for that wealth in a will drafted in 2000. However, his estate has been in legal limbo since his passing in 2006.
Why is the James Brown estate still in court despite having a will drafted? Could recent court rulings end the legal battle? What can we learn from this star’s estate battle? Our Austin estate planning law firm takes a look at the issues and what we can learn from them.
The conflict over the estate of James Brown actually began two years before the legendary singer passed away. In 2003, news outlets discovered that Brown’s wife Tommy Rae Hynie had a previous marriage. This marriage was never annulled nor had the couple gotten a divorce before her marriage to Brown. The singer filed for an annulment and asked Hynie to leave their marital home.
The couple later reconciled after Hynie received an annulment from her first husband. However, they did not remarry and Hynie reportedly waived her claim to common-law marriage. This confusing situation led to a legal battle that has continued over 14 years after Brown’s death.
In 2000, James Brown drafted a will that left the majority of his fortune to charity. But there were two problems with the will. First, there were questions about the circumstances of its drafting. Second, the will did not apply to the copyrights of the music he made over the course of his career.
After Brown passed, Hynie went to court to prove that the first man she married was a bigamist. This would void her marriage to him. In 2014, a court in South Carolina agreed and reinstated Hynie’s marriage to Brown. She also filed to stop Brown’s will based on a claim of undue influence.
Since the singer’s death, Hynie and nine of Brown’s descendants have fought for his estate. A long list of rulings and settlements have resulted in several changes to the estate. Brown’s will was restored, reestablishing the charity trust it made. Hynie also agreed to give 65 percent of the proceeds from Brown’s copyrights to the charity. But everything changed on June 25, 2020 when the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that Hynie was not married to Brown.
The termination rights to Brown’s body of work may now go to his descendants rather than Hynie. The court may also finally execute James Brown’s will.
Despite this ruling, the battle for the James Brown estate is not over. James Brown II, Hynie’s son by the famous singer, now has a larger stake in the estate. Brown II’s brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews could contest that claim. Hynie’s legal team could also dispute the ruling. Brown’s children and grandchildren may also have problems inheriting considering they challenged Brown’s original will.
Though this family will continue to contest this estate for years to come, it can teach us how to avoid such conflicts. Courts could have sorted out Hynie’s marriage if she had been more upfront about it. James Brown could have established his charitable trusts before his passing instead of leaving it to his will. Open discussions of his estate plans with his family may have also reduced conflict. When it comes to building an estate plan, a thorough job may help prevent future conflict. An experienced Austin estate planning attorney can help you develop the right estate plan. At Sheehan Law, PLLC we have years of experience helping families in the Austin area. Whether you need a special needs trust established or you need a durable power of attorney, we can help. To learn more about our practice call (512) 355-0155 or reach out using our online contact form.