The Godfather of Soul’s Estate Gone Wrong
James Brown’s will was meant to be everything his life was not.
The manic energy that fueled a career of funk classics, pyrotechnic dancing and relentless touring as the Godfather of Soul also contributed to a trail of broken marriages, estranged children, tax liens and brushes with the law over drugs, weapons and domestic violence.
By comparison, his will was as orderly as a book of prayer.
The bulk of his estate, worth millions of dollars — perhaps tens of millions — was to go to a trust to provide scholarships to needy children here in his native state and in Georgia, where he grew up. But nearly eight years after his death, at 73, on Dec. 25, 2006, the I Feel Good Trust has not distributed a penny to its intended recipients.
Some of his children, who hope to turn Mr. Brown’s former home into a Graceland-style attraction, have challenged the will, which largely ignored them. So has a woman he treated like a wife, though he later contested the legality of their marriage.
The disputes prompted the South Carolina government to seize control of Mr. Brown’s estate, jettison his instructions and redirect half of his assets. Last year the state’s Supreme Court overruled those actions, calling them an unprecedented overstepping of authority that threatened to undermine public confidence in the probate process.
Today nothing is settled. The estate remains mired in lawsuits, two sets of executors have been replaced, and a lower court has yet to follow some of the court’s instructions. Millions of dollars have been paid in recent years to creditors, law firms and various vendors, but not to schoolchildren or other beneficiaries. And Mr. Brown’s body remains in a temporary resting place, not the memorial that is planned for his home.
“This thing could go on for an eternity,” said Alan Leeds, a former tour manager for Mr. Brown. “I don’t know how you resolve it. There’s just chaos and confusion and mixed agendas.”
The battle over Mr. Brown’s will continues as a recent documentary and film focus attention on his life. The biopic, “Get on Up” released in August, is considered an Oscar contender, while HBO in October began showing the documentary, “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown.”
Mr. Brown’s music remains popular and each year it generates millions of dollars in royalties for the estate. His songs show up routinely in commercials or in the work of hip-hop performers who pay to use snippets in their own recordings. (The drum break from “Give It Up Or Turnit Loose” has been used so often that it’s been described as “the national anthem of hip hop”) Even Mr. Brown’s trademark grunts and squeals are available as ringtones.
By Mr. Brown’s own account, his interest in education stems from his childhood. Born in a one-room country shack, he grew up under segregation in dire poverty and never made it through the seventh grade.
In 2000, the year he signed his will, Mr. Brown explained on an audio tape how he hoped his scholarship fund would burnish his legacy and benefit both white and black children. The will also put aside $2 million in scholarships for his seven grandchildren and divided his personal property, like costumes and household effects, worth perhaps another $2 million, among the six children he recognized. Any heir who challenged the arrangement would be disinherited, the will said.
There was trouble from the start, though. Many of Mr. Brown’s children and grandchildren sued to overturn the will and to remove three longtime associates he had appointed as executors of the estate: his accountant, David Cannon; his personal lawyer, Albert H. Dallas; and a former judge, Alfred Bradley.
Several of the children argued that Mr. Brown, who had had drug problems, had been influenced by lawyers and managers who stood to profit from what the children claimed was his diminished mental capacity.
“Our position is that Mr. Brown did not make a valid will,” said Louis Levenson, the lawyer for four of Mr. Brown’s children. “He was highly influenced by the people who were closest to him, who had the most to gain by the creation of the charitable trust.”
By the end of 2007 all three executors had resigned — Mr. Cannon in the midst of allegations that he had misappropriated Mr. Brown’s money. (He was later sentenced in a separate case to three years of house confinement after being charged with breach of trust in his management of Mr. Brown’s affairs.)
The state district court replaced the original executors with two South Carolina estate lawyers, Adele Pope and Robert Buchanan.
In 2008, Henry McMaster, then the South Carolina attorney general, intervened. He said that Mr. Brown’s charitable goals had been endangered by the court challenges filed by his family.
Under a proposed settlement with the family, he redirected a quarter of the estate’s assets to Mr. Brown’s children and grandchildren and a quarter to the singer Tommie Rae Hynie, whom Mr. Brown married in 2001 but had left out of the will. Mr. Brown filed for an annulment in 2004 after learning that Ms. Hynie was already married to another man, but let that action lapse after she signed a document promising never to claim she had been his common-law wife; earlier, she had also signed a prenuptial agreement in which she renounced any interest in the estate.
Ms. Hynie said in an interview that Mr. Brown had never meant to disinherit her. “I was very loyal to my husband,” she said. “I loved him very much and he loved me.”
As part of the settlement, the district court agreed to remove the executors, Ms. Pope and Mr. Buchanan, partly because they had balked at the settlement and were at odds with the family. In their place, the attorney general appointed his own administrator, Russell L. Bauknight, a public accountant, to oversee the estate.
But last year the South Carolina Supreme Court threw out the attorney general’s settlement. It described the state’s entry into administration of the estate as “an unprecedented misdirection” of the attorney general’s authority that had led to “the total dismemberment of Brown’s carefully crafted estate plan and its resurrection in a form that grossly distorts his intent.” Based on what it had reviewed, the court said that there was no evidence that Mr. Brown had been unduly influenced or that the will was anything but a true expression of his intent.
The court also voided Mr. Bauknight’s appointment, though it left open the door to his reappointment. It directed the lower court to appoint a new panel to oversee the estate in accord with Mr. Brown’s wishes.
During the past 18 months, the lower court judge to whom the case was returned, Doyet A. Early III, has continued to hold hearings into the matter. But he did not appoint the new panel, and he has reappointed Mr. Bauknight to administer the estate. The judge has not made clear whether he will enforce the terms of Mr. Brown’s will or try to arrange for another settlement among the parties. He has not responded to a request for comment.
“It’s pernicious,” said Virginia Meeks Shuman, who teaches estate law at the Charleston School of Law. “This idea that you can just completely disregard the testator’s wishes is fine if we are going to live in a country where people don’t have a right to say what happens with their assets when they die.”
Despite scolding by the Supreme Court, Mr. McMaster — who was elected lieutenant governor last month — defended his plan as “a terrific settlement” that resolved the “labyrinth created by the entangling lawsuits filed by everybody against everybody.”
“We arranged for the charity to get almost half of it,” he added. “Half of something big is better than nothing.”
Just how big the estate is remains a matter of significant and unusual debate.
In 2009, when they transferred control of the estate to the attorney general’s administrator, the existing executors valued it at $86 million. They based that figure on offers that they said had been made to buy the copyrights to the more than 800 songs Mr. Brown wrote or controlled and to the dozens of albums he recorded in his 50-year career. In 2006, for example, a Royal Bank of Scotland appraisal found that just a portion of the assets was worth $42 million.
Mr. Bauknight has declined to embrace those figures, choosing instead to value the estate at the time of death at $6.5 million. He has said an investment firm helped establish the figures, but did not detail the analysis.
He has charged Ms. Pope with inflating the estate’s value to increase her fee as a fiduciary.
Ms. Pope, who has said she is entitled to $2.8 million in fees plus costs in a claim she filed with the estate, defended the valuation. She said she is only looking for the standard percentage awarded to fiduciaries.
Mr. Bauknight, meanwhile, has declined to discuss how he set his valuation, or to answer questions about the estate. “I am not an agent of the state, now or ever,” he wrote in an email to explain why he does not feel such matters are public.
Sue Summer, a reporter for The Newberry Observer, a small newspaper in South Carolina, has challenged that assertion and in July secured a court ruling directing the state to release documents about the estate’s finances. The state, which for years has declined to answer questions or provide documents, is appealing.
Mr. Bauknight, the executor, has said in court and interviews that he wants a quick resolution to the outstanding issues so that Mr. Brown’s charitable wishes can be fulfilled. His lawyers have cast him as something of a savior of the estate who hired an experienced music licensing agent, Peter Afterman, to generate more royalties by placing Mr. Brown’s songs in major commercials, thus, making it possible to retire a $14 million loan early.
Mr. Afterman and his company, Inaudible Productions, have been paid $1.2 million in fees by the estate since 2011. They also represented the estate in the sale of music and other rights to the makers of the two new films, both co-produced by Mick Jagger, another Afterman client. The biopic lists Mr. Afterman as an executive producer and the documentary credits him as one of four producers.
Mr. Afterman and Mr. Bauknight did not respond to questions about what the estate received for the rights and whether Mr. Afterman, as a producer, had also been paid by the filmmakers.
Mr. Brown’s body remains at a temporary resting place here, in a mausoleum at the home of his daughter Deanna, three miles from his mansion in Beech Island. The family had hoped to turn the mansion into a memorial and tourist attraction modeled on Elvis Presley’s Graceland, but the plans are on hold until the estate dispute is resolved.
Ms. Pope is still in court these days, pushing to have Judge Early follow the terms of Mr. Brown’s will. Ms. Hynie and five of the six children whom Mr. Brown recognized, on the other hand, are trying to secure a settlement similar to the scuttled state plan. One of Mr. Brown’s sons, Daryl, and a grandson, William, differ from the rest of the family on that issue, arguing that the officials had tried to replace a dead man’s priorities with their own.
“They didn’t do that to Strom Thurmond’s estate,” William Brown said. “They didn’t do it to Elvis Presley’s estate. What’s wrong with that picture?”