The South Carolina Supreme Court in June finally began sorting out the litigation that has been part of Brown’s estate since his death. The court held that Brown was never legally married to his fourth wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, because she had not annulled a previous marriage. Once again, celebrities are providing valuable estate planning lessons for the rest of us.
Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Might The Battle Over James Brown’s Estate Finally Be Coming To A Close After Nearly 15 Years” explains that the court’s decision weakens her claim to the estate. The estate has been valued to be worth between $5 million and $100 million. It’s the first real move forward in years. According to The New York Times, “the Supreme Court instructed the lower court to “promptly proceed with the probate of Brown’s estate in accordance with his estate plan,” which called for the creation of a charitable trust to help educate poor children.”
South Carolina law stipulates that Hynie, as Brown’s widow, would have had the right to a third of his estate’s value, no matter what his will instructed.
Hynie was married in 2001 to Javed Ahmed, a Pakistani man who already had three wives in his native country. Her lawyers argued that since Ahmed was a bigamist, their marriage was void. South Carolina’s lower courts agreed, holding that her marriage to Brown was valid.
However, the South Carolina Supreme Court disagreed. “All marriages contracted while a party has a living spouse are invalid, unless the party’s first marriage has been ‘declared void’ by an order of a competent court,” the Court explained. Estate planning lessons start to appear here.
Hynie’s counsel will be filing “a petition to reconsider and rehear the decision.”
Hynie is entitled as spouse to a share of Brown’s valuable music copyrights under federal law. She has already settled part of her dispute with the estate, agreeing to give 65% of any proceeds from her so-called termination rights—copyrights that, though once sold, can return to the songwriter or his heirs after several decades—to charity.
Brown’s will had bequeathed $2 million for scholarships for his grandchildren. The will said that his costumes and other household effects were to go to six of his children, and the remainder of the estate was to go to the charitable trust for the poor, called the “I Feel Good Trust.”
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruling is significant, because Brown’s 2000 will said, “Any heirs who challenged it would be disinherited. However, several of his children and grandchildren sued after his death,” notes The New York Times.
As always, we follow these celebrity estate planning foul-ups partly for a chuckle and partly as a cautionary tale. Estate planning lessons are all around. Your wealth may be a fraction of the Godfather’s, but avoiding family squabbles, keeping money in the family rather than in the hands of government or lawyers, and making things easier for our loved ones is important to all of us. Speak to a Chicagoland estate planning lawyer about making sure you’ve got the right plan in place.
Reference: Wealth Advisor (July 20, 2020) “Might The Battle Over James Brown’s Estate Finally Be Coming To A Close After Nearly 15 Years”