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James Brown's estate is legal muddle

Famed singer James Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006 but his estate, estimated from anywhere from $5 million to $100 million, is involved in at least 12 lawsuits. Estate administration is stymied and no money has been distributed to Brown's designated beneficiaries.

Last month in California, a federal lawsuit was filed by nine of his children and grandchildren against the estate's administrator and his widow. They claim that his widow made illegal back-room arrangements with the estate over copyrights for songs that he wrote. She allegedly sold five of his 900 songs to a large publisher for $1.9 million without informing other family members.

Most agree that most of his estate's assets come from lucrative song copyrights that Brown kept as the songwriter. Any copyrights that were sold to a music publisher were returned to the writer or his heirs 35 or 56 years after the song is published.

Another lawsuit is being reviewed by an appellate court. A South Carolina trial court rejected arguments in 2015 that his widow was not his wife because she was married to another man at the time she married Brown in 2001.

Other suits involve people contesting Brown's will, a person claiming that she should have been appointed a trustee, others who were removed as trustees and a suit by 16-year-old James Brown II claiming his right to be viewed as a son and heir. The younger Brown also allegedly made secret deals concerning the copyrights according to the federal lawsuit.

Brown's will set aside $2 million for scholarships for his grandchildren and costumes and other household items worth $2 million to the six children he recognized. Most of his estate, however, was to go to the I Feel Good Trust which he formed to give scholarships to children from South Carolina where he was born and Georgia where he lived.

When the will was challenged, the South Carolina Attorney General proposed a settlement where his children and grandchildren would receive a quarter of the estate while his widow would receive another quarter. However, the state Supreme Court rejected this settlement.

An attorney can help prepare a legally-valid estate plan that sets the testator's intent and helps lower the potential for litigation. Clear and properly drafted documents can help avoid disputes and legal challenges with more routine estates.

Source: The New York Times, "Why is James Brown's estate still unsettled? Ask the lawyers," By Steve Knopper, Feb. 4, 2018

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