James Brown Copyright Gareth Cattermole, Getty Images

James Brown’s Estate: Not Much Progress 11 Years On

Will there be anything left to distribute once all is said and done?

“The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” must be turning in his grave right now. The legendary singer, who persevered to overcome poverty, took the liberty of making sure that a vast majority of his fortune goes to fund the “I Feel Good” Trust, an educational charity set up to fund scholarships for needy children in Georgia and South Carolina. However, 11 years on, Brown’s estate is still unsettled, legal fees have cost his estate millions and on Jan. 12, nine of his children and grandchildren have filed yet another lawsuit, all of which begs the question: Where did he go wrong? 

Brown seems to have known what he was doing when it came to having an estate plan in place. He explicitly included a provision that would cut out any past, current or future wives from a share of his estate. He provided $2 million to be set aside to fund scholarships for his grandchildren. The children he recognized were also provided for, with his personal and household effects going to them. And, of course, he didn’t forget the no-contest clause, which disinherits any beneficiary who challenges the will. Despite all this seemingly meticulous and well thought out planning, not a penny has yet gone towards fulfilling Brown’s wishes, with the new lawsuit serving another blow to the hopes of that ever happening.

New Lawsuit

Much has been written on the topic of Brown’s estate, so we won’t delve into all the past and pending litigation and unresolved issues. However, of relevance here, Tommie Rae Hynie, Brown’s widow, who was actually married to another man when she married Brown, was granted a spousal ruling in her favor by a South Carolina court (an appeal of which is now pending). In the same action, her son James II was also declared to be Brown’s biological child. The status of both Hynie and James II is of crucial significance because it entitles both of them to termination rights, as statutory heirs under the Copyright Act, regarding copyrights to hundreds of musical compositions authored or co-authored by Brown. Termination rights revert the copyrights (that were sold to a music publisher) to Brown’s songs back to his heirs either 35 or 56 years after publication, allowing them to enter new licensing agreements or to sell the copyrights. 

The most recent federal lawsuit alleges that Hynie has acted in concert with administrators of Brown’s estate to cut the plaintiffs out of royalties they’re statutorily entitled to by means of “concealed illegal back-room agreements deliberately designed to destroy, circumvent and/or dilute Plaintiffs’ interests.” Further allegations in the complaint stipulate that in addition to attempting to coerce the children and grandchildren to forego their termination interests in exchange for money, the defendants also failed to disclose transactions involving the termination interests that resulted in proceeds payable to them.

A Story of Greed?

Lest you think that Brown’s children are completely innocent in all this, it’s worth mentioning that they were “near-allies” with Hynie in previous efforts to overturn the will on grounds of undue influence (arguing that Brown’s drug-plagued past rendered him incompetent to set forth a will in the first place). Once those efforts to dismantle the will (and a charitable trust) were shut down by the South Carolina Supreme Court, they now turned to fighting over the lucrative termination rights (such rights aren’t bound by the terms of a will, which is why Hynie’s adjudicated spousal status now entitles her to a share, despite being intentionally cut out of Brown’s will).

Legislation Needed?

So what, if anything, could have Brown and his estate planner done differently to prevent this from happening? Not much it seems, at least as far as the most recent lawsuit is concerned since the federal statute on termination rights trumps any directive in a will. According to Mary Moran, director of Planned Giving at Massachusetts General Hospital, “[t]his case is an example of the need for legislation that would allow an artist to leave their copyrights to charity without being subject to termination rights by heirs.” It’s highly unlikely that this is on Congress’ agenda; however, it’s probably not the last time we’ll see such a case. 

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