COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Supreme Court has tossed out a settlement agreement over James Brown’s estate, calling it unfair and criticizing it for trying to do exactly what the legendary singer didn’t want – lavishing assets on his family instead of educating poor children in Georgia and South Carolina.
The court sent the estate back to a lower court to be reconsidered.
The court said Henry McMaster, who was state attorney general at the time and brokered the settlement, should not have “become completely entrenched,” in the process, which cast aside Brown’s will. McMaster was criticized further for directing negotiations and choosing a managing trustee.
After Wednesday’s decision, McMaster’s successor, Alan Wilson, responded in a statement: “While we believe the position taken before the Supreme Court by the Attorney General’s Office was legally correct, we respect the Court’s decision.”
In November 2011, the high court heard arguments over whether to cancel the settlement – approved by Judge Jack Early of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court in 2009 – which replaced the charitable trust with The Legacy Trust, transferred control to the South Carolina attorney general and changed trustees.
The settlement gave half of Brown’s assets to a James Brown Scholarship Fund, a quarter to his widow, Tomi Rae Brown, and a quarter to the six adult children named in Brown’s will.
The singer’s wishes, however, were quite different.
Brown, known as The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business and The Godfather of Soul, died at age 73 on Christmas Day 2006. He had maintained a long-time residence in Beech Island and claimed Augusta as his home.
He left his personal and household effects to six adult children, a maximum of $2 million for a family educational fund, and the rest to the James Brown I Feel Good Trust to benefit poor students in Georgia and South Carolina schools.
Brown’s family members objected to the plan, alleging that he had suffered from the “undue influence” of others. The state attorney general’s office stepped in because the office is charged under state law with protecting all charitable trusts.
In Wednesday’s decision, the court said there was no evidence Brown was mentally infirm at the time he drafted his intentions.
“All indications in the record are that Brown was of sound mind and strong physical constitution until the time of his death, as he had only recently returned from touring and was making preparations for future performances when he suddenly became ill and passed away,” the court wrote in its decision.
It said Brown “had a reputation for being a strong-willed individual” who didn’t follow others’ orders.
What’s more, the decision states that Brown had been unequivocal about his desires for years.
“It appears Brown painstakingly developed his estate plan over the course of several years, and in various drafts, including the will in dispute here,” the court said. “Brown made it clear that he intended the bulk of his estate to be used for the education of disadvantaged youths, as he had provided for his family members during his lifetime.”
Exactly how much money Brown left isn’t clear. Some estimates put his net worth at greater than $100 million.
The fight over Brown’s estate even spilled over into what to do with his body. Family members fought over the remains for more than two months, leaving Brown, still inside his gold casket, kept in cold storage in a funeral home.
Brown was eventually buried in Beech Island at the home of one of his daughters.The family wanted to turn the home into a shrine for Brown similar to Elvis Presley’s Graceland, but that idea has not gotten off the ground.
Associated Press reports were used in this article.