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James Brown Estate Battle Rages On — Supreme Court Rejects Compromise

The more assets that are at stake following a passing, the higher the risk that others might pursue all available means to get a piece of the pie–even if it completely contravenes the original wishes of the former owner. Estate planning fills the gap by closing as many opportunities for subsequent legal challenge as possible. Sadly, in many cases, even when some planning is done ahead of time, outsiders may attempt to find any loophole possible to upset the original plan.

That seems to be what happened with the estate of music legend James Brown. Brown died over four years ago from heart failure, but the final resolution of his assets remains in limbo with a potentially long future ahead. That is because the Huffington Post is now reporting that the state’s supreme court recently rejected a compromise that was two years earlier between various parties.

The Backstory

Not long before his death Brown created a will that seemed to give the vast majority of his wealth to charity, mostly focusing of the educational goals of needy children. However, after his passing, his purported widow (the couple was not married) and various heirs challenged the will. The feuding escalated quickly, even reaching the point of forcing the singer’s body to remain unburied for two months while disagreements were sorted out.

Over the next two years accusations about trustee mismanagement, altered wishes, and undue influence were hashed out in court. Eventually, in a somewhat unprecedented step, the state’s Attorney General stepped in and brokered a deal. Per the terms of the deal, 50% of the estate would go to charity, 25% to the purported widow, and the remaining 25% to other heirs.

Not So Fast

That old agreement was reached in 2009. But shortly after a fewer of the former trustees–they had been replaced by a lower court earlier–filed suit challenging the agreement. That legal challenge eventually made its way up to the highest court in the state. In a new ruling that high court threw out the AG-brokered compromise. The main problem, noted the opinion, was that the compromise seemed to give short-shrift to Brown’s actual wishes which were to give virtually everything to charity. The judges noted that it should not be that easy to slash charitable bequests via legal challenge. So now the matter will be sent back to a lower court to figure out the next steps.

One of many lessons to be gleaned from this sad case: a simple will is often not enough to prevent others from attacking your wishes, causing legal controversy, and delaying a final resolution for years.

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