James Brown’s signature song was “I Feel Good,” but the ugly, eight-year legal battle being waged over his estate is all bad.
When the Godfather of Soul died in 2006, it appeared he had left his affairs more or less in order. He had availed himself of legal and financial counsel. He had prepared a will. He had even recorded a videotape stating his desire to use the bulk of his multi-million dollar estate to fund a trust for needy children.
But eight years later, not a penny has been distributed as intended, the Brown family has been torn apart and South Carolina courts are awash in litigation.
Get On Up
On the surface, it looked like the settlement of Brown’s estate might be fairly simple. It was all there in writing – and on tape – as reported by the New York Times:
In 2000, the year he signed his will, Mr. Brown explained on an audio tape how he hoped his scholarship fund would burnish his legacy and benefit both white and black children. The will also put aside $2 million in scholarships for his seven grandchildren and divided his personal property, like costumes and household effects, worth perhaps another $2 million, among the six children he recognized. Any heir who challenged the arrangement would be disinherited, the will said.
But just below the surface darker forces – greed, dishonesty and long-simmering family resentments – were at work.
True, some of the trouble was brought on the Godfather himself. He fathered many children (only some of whom he acknowledged) with different mothers. He was a poor money manager. He had a long history of alcohol and drug abuse, which invited claims of diminished capacity and vulnerability.
Then, too, there was the fact that Brown’s widow – lawfully wed to another man when she and the Sex Machine exchanged vows – was omitted from the will entirely.
Not helping matters was Brown’s tendency to surround himself with dubious legal and financial advisers. Within a year of his death, all three of his named executors had resigned amid allegations of misappropriation of estate funds. One wound up behind bars.
Meanwhile, the Soul Man has never been more popular. The biopic “Get On Up” grossed more than $30 million and the HBO documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” drew high ratings. His records continue to sell. Each year, millions of dollars in royalties are paid, including six figures annually for his trademarked grunts marketed as ringtones.
Politics and Estates: A Funky Mix
At its heart, the Brown estate battle – like most estate battles – is a fight over money.
What makes the case extraordinary is the buzzing swarm of competing interests that has been attracted to this honey hive – and the mountain of litigation that has resulted.
“This thing could go on for an eternity,” Brown’s former tour manager told the Times. “I don’t know how you resolve it. There’s just chaos and confusion and mixed agendas.”
Everyone from friends, family and hangers-on are trying to grab a piece of the pie. A former executor is seeking $2.8 million in fees. Long-lost relatives have popped up.
Perhaps the most bizarre twist occurred in 2008, when South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster entered the fray. Declaring that “Mr. Brown’s charitable goals had been endangered by the court challenges filed by his family,” McMaster seized control of the estate and proposed a settlement that redirected a large chunk of the assets as he saw fit. Which only succeeded in making everyone much, much angrier.
A Charleston School of Law professor called the AG’s move pernicious. “This idea that you can just completely disregard the testator’s wishes is fine if we are going to live in a country where people don’t have a right to say what happens with their assets when they die,” said professor Virginia Meeks Shuman in the Times piece.
Last year, the state Supreme Court tossed out the AG’s plan, saying it was “an unprecedented misdirection” of authority that had led to “the total dismemberment of Brown’s carefully crafted estate plan and its resurrection in a form that grossly distorts his intent.”
Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag
Sadly, no end is in sight. The lawsuits grind on. Executors, lawyers and creditors are getting paid – but not the needy children as the Brown intended.
“They didn’t do that to Strom Thurmond’s estate,” grandson William Brown told the Times. “They didn’t do it to Elvis Presley’s estate. What’s wrong with that picture?”
Even the Godfather’s body is in limbo. His family had hoped to turn his Beech Island mansion into a burial place and tourist spot like Graceland. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, he lies in a temporary mausoleum at his daughter’s home three miles away.
Hardly a fitting tribute to the hardest working man in show business.
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney who has practiced North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.