COLUMBIA — James Brown’s mental competence at the time he signed his will and created a trust 10 years ago is being debated in the fight over a settlement of the soul singer’s estate.
During arguments Tuesday at the South Carolina Supreme Court, Chief Justice Jean Toal probed the state attorney general’s office, which was given control of the 2000 trust and negotiated the settlement, for proof that Brown had indeed been manipulated.
Brown’s widow, Tomi Rae Hynie Brown, and some of the entertainer’s children challenged his will and the trust a year after his death in 2006, saying that he was under “undue influence” of his trustees David Cannon, Buddy Dallas and Alfred Bradley.
Toal and Justice John Kittredge repeatedly tried to determine why the attorney general’s office did not ask two witnesses to Brown’s trust whether Brown was signing it under the influence of his trustees.
“It appears to me that when your side is asked what is the evidence of ‘undue influence,’ you point to the post-death badness of Cannon, Bradley and Dallas (which) retroactively overlays the execution and circumstances surrounding the will and trust to constitute undue influence,” Kittredge said.
William Wilkins, an attorney defending the settlement, which is being challenged by Brown’s former estate representatives Robert Buchanan Jr. and Adele Pope, said the trust itself provided proof. He said the trustees were given an “unprecedented” management fee and that Cannon had boasted that he could have taken more of the estate.
But Jim Richardson, representing the former trustees in seeking a reversal of the settlement that Judge Jack Early of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court approved in 2009, said James Brown had been in complete control.
“All that Cannon, Dallas and Bradley ever did was to breach trust behind his back,” said Richardson. “Everybody in this courtroom knows that you could not have misled this man in front of his eyes. He would have fired them in a minute if he had known what they were doing.”
Richardson pointed to an affidavit that says Brown, in 2000, the year he signed his will and trust, was “managing multimillion-dollar transactions all over the place ... (he) was in total command of his own situation, but he trusted these people, Dallas, Bradley and Cannon, and they did him wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Brown lived in Beech Island and died at age 73 on Christmas Day 2006. He left his personal and household effects to named adult children, up to $2 million for a family educational fund, and the James Brown I Feel Good Trust to help needy students in Georgia and South Carolina schools, according to the appellants.
The settlement negotiated by the attorney general’s office shifted considerable assets to his family members. It gave half to a James Brown Scholarship Fund, a quarter to spouse Tomi Rae, and a quarter to the six adult children named in Brown’s will.
In 2008, Brown’s assets were estimated to be $100 million, with $40 million to $50 million assigned to publicity rights for his image and likeness, and $36 million to $45 million to royalties for his more than 800 published and unpublished songs.
Toal also repeatedly questioned whether family members should receive more of Brown’s money than the entertainer had intended in his original will.
“I see a bunch of people who could all be found to have absolutely no valid claim, making an agreement among themselves to divide up what might turn out to be $100 million,” the chief justice said.
Both Toal and Kittredge suggested Brown’s widow might have only a tenuous claim on his assets. The chief justice listed a host of instances and circumstances, such as Tomi Rae’s Hynie Brown waiving of spousal rights, a prenuptial agreement, and controversial past marriage status.
“If it’s decided and she loses ... then you could still reach a settlement with all these other people, children and whoever else is involved, and you’d at least knock out someone who now is entitled to 25 percent of everything and has maybe no claim at all,” Toal said.