James Brown’s Legacy Protected by S.C. Supreme Court
Despite challenges by the children and wife he left behind, as well as by the state of South Carolina, James Brown’s plans for the inheritance of his money will stay in place. In February the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that an irrevocable trust set up by the Godfather of Soul – which cut out any wives and left most of his estate to an educational trust fund – could not be set aside.
It’s This Man’s World
Brown had a tumultuous relationship with his last wife, Tommie Rae Hynie, who signed a prenuptial agreement before they married in Aiken County, South Carolina in 2001. In the prenup, she agreed that she would have no interest in his estate, according to the opinion.
Turned out, she was still married, so Brown tried to annul their marriage. She fought back, and they eventually settled, with Hynie promising to not claim any type of common law marriage. They lived together on and off, until his death in 2006.
Under his will, his six adult kids got his personal belongings, any and all wives were cut out completely, and from $5 to $100 million – the bulk of his estate – was put into a trust to fund an educational charity for needy kids and the education of his grandkids.
State Gets Involved
Hynie and his kids, unhappy with that arrangement, convinced a lower court to void the trust – known in this case as an “irrevocable trust” – and replace it with a plan that allowed them to get at some of the money. They argued that Brown suffered from “undue influence” in his estate planning.
The South Carolina Attorney General likely got involved because Brown had set up a charitable trust that the state had an interest in protecting. Ironically, the AG in this case succeeded in voiding Brown’s trust and then set up another one that gave less money to the educational charity.
But the estate administrators challenged that settlement, and the state supreme court agreed with the estate, ruling that Brown knew exactly what he was doing, and because he’d included a “no-contest” clause that automatically disinherited anyone who challenged his wishes, the family was out of luck.
Weak ‘Undue Influence’ Charge
Irrevocable trusts provide very strong ways to protect a person’s estate after he or she has died. “An irrevocable trust is one that cannot be changed once it’s set up,” explains John B. Palley, a lawyer with the Law Offices of Meissner, Joseph & Palley, Inc. in Sacramento, Calif.
“It’s like a will, in that it gives one’s assets away, but once in place, it cannot be changed, generally speaking,” he says. Such a trust can either give the assets away before or after the creator of the trust dies. In Brown’s case, this was to happen after he died.
The only way Brown’s disgruntled family could challenge what seemed to be a very clear expression of his intention that his money go to the education of underprivileged children was to claim “undue influence.”
“The plaintiffs would have to show that people or entities unduly influenced or controlled him, so that his will or trust did not match his true desires,” Palley says. “That can be tough to prove.”
Simply No Contest
And Hynie and the kids found that out: Their undue influence claim seemed weak, according to the court, consisting mainly of the fact that the lawyer who drafted Brown’s will later went to jail, but on a charge unrelated to his estate planning.
“Brown had a reputation as a strong-willed individual who did not take orders from others, and he made his desires abundantly clear during his lifetime,” noted the court. His inclusion of the “no-contest” clause is further evidence that he full-well intended to leave his kids and Hynie out.
Such clauses are common, Palley says, and allowed in most states. One can still challenge a trust or will that includes such a clause, but the challenge must turn out to be valid and reasonable in order to override the testator’s desire.
Palley says undue influence claims can be headed off at the pass “by taking extra caution to set up the will and trust with care.” An experienced estate planning attorney will meet with the client alone and ask a series of questions designed to show that the client knows what he or she is doing.
As for the craziness surrounding Brown’s relationship, Palley sees a lesson there: “It’s a good policy to always update a will and trust when you get married or divorced,” he says. When spouses are left out of wills, red flags automatically go up, so if you’re going to do that, be sure to dot every i and cross every t.