Jenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea
Celebrity Estate Planning - James Brown - Episode 71
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Today, we’re on the “estate planning of the rich and famous” topic and for today’s episode, we’re going to dive into what happened estate-wise following the passing of one of the greatest musicians that has ever walked this planet – the Godfather of Soul, James Brown! As I mentioned at the end of my last episode, what transpired estate-wise following James’ passing, does not make him the Godfather of Estate Planning. What is crazy is that he DID do documents, which is more than a lot of celebrities can say at least – but what did happen estate-wise was a lot. Just a lot of drama and craziness, so before we dive into said drama and craziness, we should talk a little about James as a person … I think that always helps not only to give some background of the person, but also to get familiar with who was near-and-dear to James, you know?
Well, for starters, according to Biography.com’s website, James was born on May 3, 1933. He sure had a humble beginning – the website shares, “Growing up in abject poverty during the Great Depression, a young Brown worked whatever odd jobs he could find for literal pennies. He danced for the soldiers at nearby Fort Gordon, picked cotton, washed cars, and shined shoes.”
According to Biography.com, after getting in some trouble, he spent some time in jail and he ended up meeting a gentleman by the name of Bobby Byrd, who was an aspiring R&B singer. After they were both released, Bobby Byrd found James and invited James to join his R&B vocal group called The Gospel Starlighters in 1955. The Gospel Starlighters ended up renaming their group to the Famous Flames and started to perform at several nightclubs in Georgia. The group ended up connecting with a talent scout, and before they knew it, they had a song (called “Please, Please, Please”) that hit the Number 6 spot on the R&B charts. Soon after, the Famous Flames took to the road and became opening acts for B.B. King and Ray Charles. After some time on the road, the group … started to slow down and ended up fizzling out a bit.
Still ccording to Biography.com, he moved to New York in 1958. He started working with some different musicians and artists, but still under the Flames name. Together, they put together and recorded a song called “Try Me” which skyrocketed to Number 1 in the R&B charts. It’s said to have kick-started James’ individual music career. Thereafter, he boomed – so big that he was well-known in the music space to be a very hard-working man; often having tour spots five or six nights every week. Through the 50s and 60s, James was a powerhouse, to say the least, but things started to slow down in the late 70s. However, he made a comeback in the 80s … that is, until the late 80s. He did get back into music for a bit – and even according to his Wikipedia page, he performed at the 1997 Super Bowl halftime show. He would have been like 62 at that time! And heck, even in 2004, he opened up a show for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in London -- at like 70ish years old then. Good for him!
According to Biography.com, personally-speaking, James had been married four times over his life and ended up having six kiddos. He was married to a lady named Velma Warren from 1953-1969, to Deidre Jenkins from 1970-1981, to Adrienne Rogriguez from 1984-1996, and Tomi Rae Hynie from 2002-2004. And according to his Wikipedia page, he had, and I’m not kidding his Wikipedia page says this, “9, possibly 13 children.” So, as his Wikipedia page explains, he had nine children that he “acknowledged.” So, the nine he “acknowledged” are: Teddy (who actually passed away before him in 1973), Terry, Larry, Daryl, James, Jr. (those were all his sons), as well as Lisa, Dr. Yamma Brown, Deanna, and Venisha (who passed away in 2018). So, this whole “who are James’ kids” thing definitely came to be an issue after James passed away, so let’s segway over to that…
James passed away on December 25, 2006 from heart issues that occurred due to pneumonia he was fighting. He was 73 years old at the time of his passing. A little foreshadowing to what I’ll go into next, but in total, his Estate took around 15 years (yes, 15 years!) to settle. Why, you ask? Well, let’s get into it…
Following his death, a fairly elaborate estate plan was discovered involving a Last Will and Testament and an Irrevocable Trust. Let’s start with James’ Will, which was signed in August of 2000. Because of how he owned his assets, his Will covered his more personal assets like clothing, cars, jewelry (otherwise called tangible personal property). That Will left things beneficiary-wise to six of his children, namely – Terry, Larry, Daryl, Dr. Yamma Brown, Deanna, and Venisha. All others, regardless if he acknowledged them or not, were left out. Though, there was a slight issue with the date of his Will – according to his Wikipedia page, it was created a mere ten months before James II was born AND was created a year or so before James married Tomi Rae Hynie. So, naturally that caused some issues, including Tomi Rae Hynie trying to ask the Court to “count her” as James’ official widow.
There sure was some scuttlebutt about that. So, like I said, Tomi Rae Hynie was his fourth and last wife – and after he passed away, the validity of their marriage got questioned. According to James’ Wikipedia page, when James and Tomi Rae got married, she was supposedly still married to a man in Bangladesh, but Tomi Rae argued that she only married that person so he could obtain residency (in the United States). Consequently, Tomi Rae provided her and James’ marriage certificate. So, the back-and-forth continued…
In January 2015, a Judge ruled that Tomi Rae WAS officially the widow of James Brown – and the Judge made the decision by stating that Tomi Rae’s marriage to the Bangaldesh guy was invalid, so her marriage to James was valid and maintained until James passing Though, less than a month later, in February 2015, the South Carolina Supreme Court said, “no, no no! stop!” and halted lower courts’ actions. Finally, in July 2018, so yes like 3 years later, the Court of Appeals ruled that Tomi Rae WAS confirmed to be James’ widow. Would you even believe me if I said things didn’t stop there? Well, believe me because in 2020, the South Carolina Supreme Court ultimately held that Tomi Rae had NOT been legally married to James and therefore, she did not have a right to his Estate. Wow! So, even though James’ Will was created after the marriage to Tomi Rae, that didn’t matter.
Now on to his kids … well, as somewhat expected (especially given he even appears to have disinherited some of the kids he “acknowledged”), things got messy with the kiddos, too. In January 2007, the six kids (that were in the Will) requested for the executors to be removed, which one was an attorney and long-time confidant of James, and a special administrator be appointed. It sounds like, from the articles I read (granted, I probably spent way too much time digging to figure out what executor was in charge and when) that, according to an article in the Augusta Chronicle by Susan McCord, the executors/trustees, David Cannon, Buddy Dallas (which was the attorney/confidant I mentioned a second ago), and Alfred Bradley, were removed and the Court appointed Adele Pope and Robert Buchanan as the new executors/trustees. Then, about a year later, Pope and Buchanan were replaced by Russell Bauknight, a CPA, as the executor/trustee. Bauknight is who saw the estate until the end.
Yet another issue we saw arise in James’ Estate, following his passing, like how we’ve seen in other celebrities’ estates following their passing, is that there was serious questions and disputes over the VALUE of James’ Estate. There have been figures in the single digits of the millions (like $5 Million Dollars); there have been figures in the double digits and drastically more than single digits (like to the tune of $85 Million Dollars). That’s a MASSIVE difference, right? Yeah. Well, it sounds like it ended up closer to the $85 Million Dollars primarily due to Bauknight, remember he's the guy in charge, working with a company called Primary Wave, which is a company that according to a New York Times article by Ben Sisario and Steve Knoppner, “specializes in marketing estates and song catalogs.”
Primary Wave is buying much of James’ estate – including music rights, real estate, and control of James’ “name and likeness.” As you can imagine, that’s worth … a lot of money.
Honestly, James Brown’s Estate could go into 2 episodes! Not only was there all this craziness with Tomi Rae (the widow, not widow), drama with the executors/trustees, drama with the kids, but then there was also the Trusts that we have not talked much about. That is partially because it’s been difficult to hone in on WHAT the Trust said and WHAT the Trust has done/will be doing – what I mean by this is that ultimately, James’ Estate and Trust were taking such a long time to administer, primarily due to all the fighting and stuff, that things ultimately had to get settled in a private settlement arrangement/agreement.
The terms of the settlement agreement are confidential. So, what we DO know, according to a Smithsonian Magazine article by Livia Gershon, is that there were two Trusts created – one to support his grandchildren (which is said to have been about $2 Million Dollars) AND the other Trust received the rest of the funds from the Primary Wave sale (which is supposedly in the $90 Million Dollar range) to fund scholarships for children in South Carolina and Georgia (South Carolina being where James was born and Georgia where James grew up). That was something James had expressly put in his estate plan.
How about we end on that note? A good note – even though the general vibe of the James Brown Estate was sour. Sour because of the 15 year long battle between … like everyone. Though, it sounds like it was super important to James to be charitable, hence the scholarship fund, so it’s great to see that intent be carried out appropriately.
Okay, let’s wrap this episode up – next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases that I, or my office, have worked on. During that episode, we’re going to be talking about a family that was ripe for conflict from the start – and you know, hindsight is always 20/20, but my goodness – this person may have really benefitted from an unbiased third party as the Trustee after she passed. The thing to take away from next week’s episode is that whoever you pick as “who is in charge after you pass” does NOT have to be family. And sometimes, it’s best if it is NOT a family member. Tune in for that next week, but until then, Legal Tea Listeners,– take care and be well!