State Supreme Court Upends James Brown Probate Compromise

Readers in Los Angeles no doubt remember James Brown, the “hardest working man in show business” who was one of the most popular music stars of his time. They may also recall that a major probate fight erupted after Brown’s death in 2006. In the latest twist in that probate case, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s attorney general overstepped his bounds when he brokered a compromise between the wishes expressed in Brown’s will and trust and those of his purported widow and son.

James Brown created the will and trust in 2000, more than six years before he died on Dec. 25, 2006. In the will, he directed that $2 million of his estate be put into a trust for an education fund for his grandchildren. The rest of his estate was to be donated to help poor students in South Carolina and Georgia pay their educational and personal expenses, except for some personal and household items which were to be distributed between his six children.

But after Brown’s death, his children challenged the will and trust, claiming that his estate planning attorney exercised undue influence on him. Also, a woman claiming to be Brown’s wife emerged, saying that she and their son were entitled to shares of the estate because they married after Brown created the will and trust. Whether the woman was Brown’s legal wife is unclear; she may have already been married at the time of their wedding.

Eventually, the attorney general stepped in under his office’s power to protect charitable trusts. He created a new division of Brown’s assets wherein half of the estate would go to charity, 25 percent would go to the wife and the rest would be divided among the seven children. The trustees of Brown’s estate appealed that decision, saying that there was no reason to go against Brown’s apparent intentions.

The state supreme court agreed. In a recently-issued ruling, the court said the compromise “destroys the estate plan Brown had established” and that the AG violated his duty to protect charitable trusts by instead remaking the estate plan entirely.

Source: Forbes, “Court Scolds SC Attorney General For Hijacking James Brown Estate,” Danielle and Andy Mayoras, Feb. 28, 2013