CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Relatives excluded from the will of the late soul singer James Brown got too much in a settlement of myriad lawsuits over his estate, while needy children the Godfather of Soul had sought to help did not get enough, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.
The court rejected a 2009 settlement that ended litigation in which family members sought part of the multimillion dollar estate. The court said the settlement improperly divided Brown’s estate between the charitable trust he established to pay for schooling for his children and disadvantaged youths and family members he excluded.
Brown, a South Carolina native, died at age 73 of heart failure in Atlanta on Christmas Day 2006. He left behind an estate estimated to be worth anywhere from $5 million to more than $100 million, the court said.
A compromise agreement brokered by then-state Attorney General Henry McMaster ended a drawn-out legal battle and gave nearly half of Brown’s assets to the trust, about a quarter to his wife and the rest to his children.
The deal resulted “in an outright gift of half of the estate to the family members and purported family members who challenged Brown’s will and trust based on tenuous claims,” the court said in the ruling that rejected the deal.
The court found that the extent of the attorney general’s involvement in the case overreached his statutory authority.
The high court sent the case back to a circuit judge for further proceedings and ordered new, neutral trustees to be appointed to oversee the case.
The plan emerged amid a tangle of lawsuits filed after Brown died. Among the issues disputed were what to do with his remains, whether his wife was legally married to him at the time of his death and who owned the rights to his music.
In 2007, five of the six adult children Brown named in his will, as well as wife Tomi Rae Hynie Brown, went to court seeking to get Brown’s will and trust set aside based on undue influence by the estate’s trustees.
Two former trustees of the estate who were removed from their positions during the lower court proceedings appealed the eventual settlement to the Supreme Court.
In the ruling on Wednesday, court justices found that Brown was of “sound mind and strong physical constitution” until he passed away after a sudden illness. They said he purposely excluded some family members from his will and put barriers against future claims by them and by his adult children.
Charleston attorney Robert Rosen, who represents Brown’s wife, said he was disappointed by the ruling. He described the case as the “biggest mess” he has seen in his 39 years of practicing law and said it has cost millions in legal fees.
“The beauty of the settlement was that it ended all litigation,” he said.
“The cost of litigation is going to eat up the estate,” he added. “That’s the tragedy.”
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio