Estate Planning Gone Wrong – Settling the Estate of James Brown

As a two part series, we will look at how the estate settlement process for two different celebrities can illustrate starkly contrasting results achieved from their respective estate plans.  First we will look at the settlement of the Estate of James Brown, the late entertainer whose post-mortem family affairs have proven to be just as contentious as his personal life was when he was alive.

Before his death on Christmas Day in 2006, James Brown accumulated a great deal of wealth in a long and illustrious career in the music industry.  From a very modest upbringing in rural Georgia, the “Godfather of Soul” left a string of musical hits that still generate millions in royalties for his estate.  However, his personal life was by no means as successful as his professional life, as he left multiple broken marriages, estranged children, tax liens and legal troubles involving drugs, weapons and domestic violence.

Despite the disorder in his personal life, his will was quite clear and organized, on paper anyway.  He wanted the bulk of his fortune to be put into a trust he termed the “I Feel Good Trust” intended to provide scholarships to needy children in South Carolina (where he died) and in Georgia (where he grew up).  In an audio tape he made in 2000, shortly after he executed his will, he explained how his clear intent was to burnish his legacy by helping disadvantaged children.  Unfortunately, to this day, some eight years after his death, not a penny has been distributed to his intended charitable beneficiaries.

Mr. Brown’s will did not entirely disinherit his family members.  $2 million was to be allocated to scholarships for his seven grandchildren and another $2 million worth of personal property would be distributed amongst six children he recognized.   The will included a section that stated that any heir who challenged the will would be disinherited.  However, that clause apparently has not prevented multiple challenges to the validity of will by some of his children.  Those children have brought allegations that their father was unduly influenced by his lawyers and managers, who in their view stood to gain from manipulating their father. 

After the numerous challenges had bogged down the probate process completely, the South Carolina Attorney General stepped in and presented a proposed settlement agreement that completely deviated from the terms of Mr. Brown’s will.  Rather than directing the vast majority of his wealth to his charitable trust, the Attorney General’s plan would distribute some 25% to Mr. Brown’s wife and another 25% to his children and grandchildren.  When the executors of Mr. Brown’s estate balked at a settlement that so clearly strayed far from Mr. Brown’s plan, the Attorney General persuaded the state district court to have them removed and replaced.

What lessons can we learn from James Brown?  There is no question that the state probate court and the state district court on appeal have done a great disservice to Mr. Brown by completely disregarding his clearly documented wishes.  As far as we know, there are no deficiencies in his will and his wishes should have been respected.  But there is a simple way all that post-mortem judicial drama might have been avoided.  If he had instead established and funded his charitable trust while he was alive, many of the issues now being litigated would never have reached the probate court in the first place.

In general, it is easier for family members to challenge a will than it is for them to challenge a trust established during lifetime.  By leaving so much his wealth to pass through the probate process, Mr. Brown inadvertently left much more for his family members to fight over.  Furthermore, probate is a very public process.  The reason we know so much about Mr. Brown’s will and the various pending intra-family disputes is because all of his wealth was to be distributed via the probate process.  Many families would like to keep their affairs private and probate is a poor process to use if privacy is preferred.


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