James Brown’s life was full of life, music, and manic energy. It was also full of broken marriages, estranged children, tax liens, and legal problems related to drugs, guns, and domestic violence. However, James Brown’s estate was meant to be a mea culpa for his transgressions in life and to help others after his death. Yet, almost eight years after his passing the charity that was supposed to receive a significant portion of James Brown’s estate has not seen a dime, his family is entangled in lawsuits, and even the state has attempted to intervene.
James Brown signed his most recent will in 2000, and he explained on audio tape that he wanted a portion of his estate set aside for the use of a scholarship fund to benefit black and white children in his home state of Georgia as well as South Carolina. In addition, the will provided $2 million in scholarships for his seven grandchildren and divided his other personal property worth another $2 million between the six children that he recognized. Any heir who challenged the estate would be disinherited.
That statement, however, did nothing to keep multiple children, grandchildren, and purported common law wife from suing the estate to overturn the will. The lawsuits also sought to remove the three people appointed as executors to the estate: James Brown’s accountant, personal lawyer, and a former judge. Several children claimed that because of rampant drug use, James Brown had been influenced by his named executors due to his diminished mental capacity.
Then in 2008, the South Carolina attorney general stepped in and claimed that James Brown’s charitable goals had been endangered by the court challenges of his family. In a settlement, the attorney general redirected one quarter of the estate to the children and grandchildren, one quarter to his supposed common law wife Tommie Rae Hynie, and the remaining half to the charity. The executors of the estate were also replaced.
Last year, the South Carolina Supreme Court rejected the attorney general’s settlement, calling it “an unprecedented misdirection” of the attorney general’s authority that inevitably led to “the total dismemberment of Brown’s carefully crafted estate plan and its resurrection in a form that grossly distorts his intent.” In addition, the court found that there was no evidence of James Brown being unduly influenced or that the 2000 will was anything except his true intent.
State of Affairs Today
As of today, nothing is settled in James Brown’s estate. The estate remains embroiled in multiple lawsuits, two of his three executors have been replaced, and a lower court has yet to follow some of the state Supreme Court’s ruling. In addition, millions of dollars have been paid out of the estate to his creditors, but no money has been released to the scholarship fund, school children, or other intended beneficiaries. Saddest of all, James Brown’s body remains in a temporary resting place and not the memorial that was planned for him at his home.
The battle over James Brown’s estate was the basis for a recent documentary and major motion film. A biopic on his life, “Get On Up,” was released in August and considered an Oscar contender, and the documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” was shown on HBO in October.
In addition, his music continues to make money for the estate. Each year it has generated millions of dollars in royalties through its use in commercials or as samplings in other music hits. Even his trademark noises, grunts, and squeals that he would make during his performances are available for purchase as ringtones.