James Brown's Estate Still in Limbo

James Brown's Estate Still in Limbo

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., December 2009

When legendary soul singer James Brown died on Christmas Day 2006, it took another two and a half months before his body was laid to rest because of intrafamilial bickering over the proper location. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Godfather of Soul's estate continues to hang in limbo over a year after his death—the most recent challenge coming from five of his eight surviving legitimate children.

The Claim

In South Carolina's Aiken County Probate Court, Brown's children are contending that their father was unduly influenced by his long-time advisors Buddy Dallas, Alford Bradley, and David Cannon in his decision to leave the bulk of his estate to charity; lawyers representing the five contend that Brown's advisors did so for their own personal gain.

According to an irrevocable trust document signed separately from his will, Brown left his 60-acre Beech Island, South Carolina riverfront home, the rights to his name and music, and the business assets of James Brown Enterprises in the James Brown "I Feel Good" Trust for the education of his grandchildren under the age of 35 and disadvantaged young people from South Carolina and Georgia.

What is at Stake

Make no mistake that the rights to Brown's image and music are immensely valuable. One need only look at last year's incomes of the estates of deceased superstars like Elvis Presley ($49 million) and John Lennon ($44 million) to realize that earning power doesn't end for everyone at death.

Indeed, although there is no estimate for how much Brown's total estate is currently worth, Forbes Magazine estimates that James Brown's estate earned $5 million between October 2006 and October 2007, so there's at least that to divvy up.

The five children challenging the trust were all named in Brown's will, but that document provided only for the distribution of personal possessions such as cars, clothes, and jewelry.

Lawyers for Brown's children contesting the estate plan say that previous versions of Brown's will show that his intent was not to leave the bulk of his estate to charity.

Other Claims

The children's claim isn't the first to hit the Brown estate either. Just a month after his death, Tomi Rae Hynie, who is a former backup singer for Brown, contested both the will and the trust—neither of which named her or her son James Brown, Jr. The will had been signed 10 months before the birth of Brown, Jr. and over a year before Hynie's marriage to Brown.

Lawyers for the Brown estate insist that Hynie isn't entitled to anything because the marriage wasn't valid. Hynie was married to someone else at the time of the ceremony, Brown's estate's lawyers say, and although Hynie later annulled the marriage, she and Brown didn't marry again, which would've made their union legal and binding.

Another of Brown's children has hired a separate lawyer and an August 2007 report from the UK's Daily Telegraph says that DNA tests have proved that Brown fathered at least three illegitimate children, so the challenges to the distribution of the estate of the former "Hardest Working Man in Show Business" are likely far from over.

And surely if he were alive, that wouldn't make Brown feel too good.