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A real estate mogul's estate planning blunder

The James Brown Estate Battle: Keeping Probate Lawyers Busy

The Godfather of Soul died during the early morning hours of Christmas Day, 2006.  It did not take long after that for the fireworks to start.  Brown left behind at least 4 women he had married, along with 6 children through marriage and 3 others who may or may not have been fathered by Brown from women he hadn't married.James Brown

And Brown made plans for all of them -- well, most of them at least.  In 2000, he created a will covering his personal property.  He then used a different estate planning attorney to create an irrevocable living trust to pass his musical legacy, image rights, businesses, and his South Carolina Island Estate to charity to benefit underprivileged students.  His total estate is valued at around $80 million, but with substantial debt.  The value can only grow if his image and song rights are properly managed.

Some of his children were not happy with so much of his property passing to charity.  Others wanted to honor his wishes.  Some challenged the trustee and estate administrators for improper management.  They even fought over where and how to bury his body.  Enough to keep those probate lawyers busy?  Wait, there's more.

Brown's last wife was named Tomi Rae Hynie, married to him five years before he died.  The problem was that Hynie was still technically married to a Pakistani man whom she claimed wed her only to earn a Green Card.  That marriage was eventually annulled -- after her marriage to Brown.  Brown, reportedly, was very unhappy when he learned about it and announced in August 2003 that he and Hynie were separating. 

So it seemed Brown did not want to leave anything to Hynie.  She was not mentioned in the will or trust.  Neither was her son, James Brown II.  But the will and trust were created before he married Hynie, and before James II was born. 

In South Carolina, like most states, when a spouse or child come along after a will or trust is created, the family members get a share in the estate and trust, unless the estate planning document(s) expressly disinherited them.  So of course, this gave Hynie and James II good grounds to add yet another lawsuit to the James Brown Estate Battle. 

But two big questions remained.  Could Hynie qualify for this legal right when the marriage may not have been valid?  And the second question -- apparently first raised by Brown himself before he died -- is whether James II was really his son. 

With all these claims, lawsuits, allegations and innuendos, the various estate, trust and litigation attorneys worked out a comprehensive settlement.  The feuding family members agreed that 50% of Brown's property and rights would go to charity as he wanted, 25% to Hynie (with an acknowledgment that she was a lawful widow), and the final quarter passing to some of Brown's adult children.  The settlement also recognized James II as a legitimate child and heir.

So last Friday, the sparring Brown family members and their lawyers went before the probate court judge in South Carolina and asked him to approve the settlement.  But the Brown Estate battle can't end so easily, now can it? 

The judge -- acting on the recommendation of a court appointed trustee -- decided that there were too many questions that needed better answers before he could rule in favor of the settlement.  There are unresolved tax issues -- not to mention concerns of unfairness to Brown's charity and the unsolved puzzle of whether the Brown-Hynie marriage was actually valid -- that the Brown family and their attorneys must work out before the judge will approve a settlement. 

So the beat goes on.  They will return to court in the months to come and try again.  They may or may not be able to satisfy the judge's concerns. 

That's why probate litigation cases can be so sticky.  Instead of having two parties to settle like most court cases do, estate and trust disputes often involve numerous parties, creditors, tax issues, and/or charities -- not to mention honoring the true wishes of the person who died (if the probate court can figure out what those wishes really were). 

While most families experiencing will and trust legal disputes don't have to face quite so many complications as James Brown's family, everyone who faces a probate fight with even a fraction of the confusion and fighting of this case knows how unpleasant they are for everyone.  The cost to families in broken relationships, damaged emotions, and legal fees is often overwhelming.

That's why proper estate planning is so important.  If Brown had updated his will and trust after his marriage and the birth of James II, he could have prevented much -- and perhaps all -- of this legal feuding.  So if you haven't updated your will and trust in several years, especially if you've had a life-changing event like a marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or loss of a close loved one, then go see an experienced estate planning attorney now. 

Otherwise, you or your family may have to see a probate litigation attorney later.

Posted by:  Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs:  Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law.  You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.

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