COLUMBIA, S.C.— The South Carolina Supreme Court on Feb. 27 overturned a settlement divvying up the multimillion-dollar estate of James Brown, saying a former attorney general didn’t follow the late soul singer’s wishes in putting together the deal.
Attorney General Henry McMaster brokered a settlement in 2009 that split Brown’s estate, giving nearly half to a charitable trust, a quarter to his widow, Tomi Rae Hynie, and leaving the rest to be split among his adult children.
But the justices ruled that the deal ignored Brown’s wishes for most of his money to go to charity. The court also ruled the Godfather of Soul was of sound mind when he made his will before dying of heart failure on Christmas Day 2006 at age 73.
The court sent the estate back to a lower court to be reconsidered.
The justices did agree with the lower court’s decision to remove Brown’s original trustees. Members of Brown’s family said they wanted them gone because the trustees mismanaged the estate until it was almost broke.
The court said it had no idea what the estate was worth, giving an estimate of $5 million to more than $100 million.
The justices harshly criticized McMaster, who stepped in to broker the settlement after the estate floundered in court for years. Under McMaster’s deal, a professional manager took control of Brown’s assets from the estate’s trustees, wiping out crushing debt — more than $20 million Brown had borrowed for a European comeback tour — and opening the way for needy students to receive college scholarships. The plan allowed a financial manager to cut lucrative deals that put Brown’s music on national and international commercials for products such as Chanel perfume and Gatorade.
Chief Justice Jean Toal suggested Feb. 27 that, if the settlement was allowed to stand, it could discourage people from leaving most of their estate to charity for fear their wishes could easily be overturned.
The dispute came to the court after the ousted trustees sued.
“The compromise orchestrated by the AG in this case destroys the estate plan Brown had established in favor of an arrangement overseen virtually exclusively by the AG,” giving large sums of money to relatives even though they were given little or no control in the singer’s original will, Associate Justice John Kittredge wrote.
The fight over Brown’s estate even spilled over into what to do with his body.
Family members fought over the remains for more than two months, leaving Brown’s body, still inside a gold casket, sitting in cold storage in a funeral home. Brown was eventually buried in Beech Island, S.C., at the home of one of his daughters. The family wanted to turn the home into a shrine for Brown similar to Elvis Presley’s Graceland, but that idea has not gotten off the ground.
An attorney for Adele Pope — one of the trustees who appealed — commended the court for its ruling, which he said would more accurately fulfill Brown’s wishes.
“James Brown was certainly devoted to the cause of education,” James Richardson said. “Today’s decision means that the bulk of his fortune will go to the cause of educating needy children.”
McMaster, who left office in 2010, said that he respected the court’s decision but stood by the settlement he brokered.
“I believe we took the correct legal steps to make the very best of a bad situation,” McMaster said. “We worked hard to see that Mr. Brown’s wishes were effectuated to the furthest extent they could be.”
Current Attorney General Alan Wilson said he respected the court’s decision but felt McMaster had acted legally.