It’s Year 11 of a War Over the Will Left by James Brown
Posted February 4, 2018 4:31 p.m. EST
It seems fair to say, 11 years after James Brown’s death, that his estate planning has failed in its major mission: to distribute his wealth efficiently.
Not a penny has gone to any of the beneficiaries of his will, who include underprivileged children in Georgia and South Carolina, to whom Brown sought to donate millions, perhaps tens of millions, of dollars.
But as a petri dish for cultivating legal disputes, Brown’s will may have few rivals.
More than a dozen lawsuits related to the estate have been filed since Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006, including one filed last month in federal court in California.
In that case, nine of Brown’s children and grandchildren are suing the estate’s administrator and Brown’s widow, Tommie Ray Hynie, asserting that she made “illegal backroom agreements” with the estate involving copyrights for songs Brown wrote.
Another lawsuit now in the appellate stage challenges whether Hynie actually ever was his wife. (A lower court ruled she was.)
There have also been several suits by people who contest the will; another by a person who thought she should have been appointed a trustee of the estate; still another by people who were trustees of the estate but then were removed; and still another filed by James Brown II, 16, to assert his right to be viewed as a son and heir.
The court records themselves are largely dry recitations of estate and copyright law, but the larger debate over Brown’s financial legacy has been a louder affair, one chock-full of accusations of bigamy and corruption, racism and the fraternity of the South Carolina legal and political establishment.
“This is a miniseries,” said Jay Cooper, a lawyer who handles estates and has represented Katy Perry, Jerry Seinfeld and Etta James. “You really need a map to go through this whole thing.”
Of course, Brown’s life as the Godfather of Soul was a bit messy too, marked by divorce; estrangement from some of his children; and arrests on drug, weapons and domestic violence charges. That kind of instability fed, in part, the first effort to overturn the will, in which several of his children and grandchildren said his drug problems had prevented him from making sound decisions about his estate.
The will had set aside $2 million to underwrite scholarships for the grandchildren, and it gave his costumes and other household effects to the six children he recognized, a bequest thought to be worth perhaps another $2 million. But the bulk of the estate was to be given over to the I Feel Good Trust, which he set up to distribute scholarships for children from South Carolina, where he was born, and Georgia, where he lived for much of his life.
After the will was challenged, the South Carolina attorney general, Henry McMaster, who is now the governor, proposed a settlement: Brown’s children and grandchildren would receive a quarter of the estate and Hynie would receive another quarter. But the state’s Supreme Court overturned the settlement, arguing in court papers that the reformulated asset distribution amounted to a “total dismemberment of Brown’s carefully crafted estate plan.”
At that point, Hynie and several of the Brown children were near-allies in their efforts to overturn the will. Now they are opposing one another, not only in the latest suit but in the ongoing effort to determine whether she was legally married to Brown. Hynie, a singer who worked in Brown’s band, was apparently married to another man in 2001 when she wed Brown, a circumstance that led to the legal challenge of her status. Brown had filed for an annulment at one point, but a South Carolina judge ruled in 2015 that she had been the wife and was a legal heir, and that her child, James Brown II, was Brown’s son. (The paternity decision has not been appealed.)
The value of the estate itself also remains very much a matter of debate. The administrators of the estate have suggested in court papers that it could be worth less than $5 million but others have given estimates as high as $100 million.
There is little argument that the bulk of the value comes from the song copyrights that Brown retained as the songwriter.
In addition, the portion of any copyrights that were sold to a music publisher revert to the writer, or his or her heirs, either 35 or 56 years after a song is published, depending on when it first came out. The heirs regain these so-called “termination rights” and can strike deals to license the use of the songs or to sell the copyrights.
The results can be incredibly lucrative. Brown’s songs are routinely used in commercials, including recent ads by L.L. Bean and Walmart.
In the new federal lawsuit, Brown’s children and grandchildren assert that Hynie sold her share of the termination rights to just five of Brown’s 900-some compositions to Warner/Chappell, a large song publisher, for nearly $1.9 million, a payday that would speak to the collection’s potential worth.
Typically, copyright termination rights, which are not bound by the terms of a will, are split between the spouse and the children, with each receiving half. “In order to do anything, it has to be a majority — it’s got to be 51 percent to make a decision,” Cooper, the estate lawyer, said. “You can’t convey it to anybody.” The federal suit charges that Hynie and James Brown II made deals regarding these rights without fully informing Brown’s other children and grandchildren, and thus “conspired to unlawfully deprive plaintiffs of their valuable termination interests.” It says Hynie agreed to give back 65 percent of her share of the termination rights to the estate in exchange for its dropping the challenge to her spousal status, and it questions why she would agree to turn over such a potentially large benefit.
“The Estate of James Brown has long been marred by dubious backroom dealings between the Estate and James Brown’s putative wife, Tommie Rae Hynie, as described in our lawsuit,” a lawyer for the children and grandchildren, Marc Toberoff, said in a statement.
Robert Rosen, a lawyer for Hynie, said that he had not reviewed the California lawsuit as yet but that he and his client have “full confidence” that the appellate court will uphold the lower court ruling that found Hynie to be Brown’s legal wife.
The estate’s administrator, Russell Bauknight, did not respond to a request for comment.
Daryl Brown, a son of James Brown who is not a party to the recent suit and never challenged his father’s will, said that he has lost faith in the South Carolina justice system.
“This stuff wouldn’t happen to Elvis Presley,” he said.
Alan Leeds, who once managed tours for Brown and was a consultant to the 2014 HBO documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” which was made with the support of the estate, said, “I just feel sorry for everybody.”
“Whatever good was going to come out of it that would benefit the community that James had originally intended — and whatever good would benefit his family, for that matter, was all jeopardized,” he continued. “There are no winners in this.”