Godfather's estate settled, for now

File/Staff
Barnwell, S.C., native James Brown died Dec. 25, 2006.

AIKEN --- A judge's approval Tuesday of a settlement on the estate of James Brown favors family members, including his last wife and young son, and allows for the creation of a museum or other memorial to the soul singer.

Aiken Circuit Judge Jack Early's ruling ended, at least for now, a court battle that lasted for more than two years and included a threat by former estate trustees to appeal the settlement if it was approved.

On Tuesday, some involved in the case said they hoped that former trustees Adele Pope and Robert Buchanan would reconsider but that they weren't worried about an appeal, which could last a couple of years.

"We're anticipating the estate will move forward," said Robert Rosen, the attorney for Tomi Rae Hynie Brown, who in Tuesday's settlement agreement was established as the surviving spouse of the Godfather of Soul. "We're anticipating they (Ms. Pope and Mr. Buchanan) will appeal, and several years from now some appellate court will dispose of whatever it is. But in the meantime I'm hoping we're going to get a fresh start."

Messages left for Ms. Pope and Mr. Buchanan at their offices Tuesday weren't immediately returned.

The approval of the settlement gives nearly half of Mr. Brown's estate to his charitable trust; about a quarter to his wife and young son, James Brown II; and the rest to his adult children. The judge also wrote in his ruling that Mr. Brown's relatives will create a museum or other memorial burial place for the late singer. Mr. Brown was placed in a crypt at the Beech Island home of one of his daughters on March 10, 2007.

Through her lawyer, Mrs. Brown said she is thrilled with the judge's decision.

"I am so relieved and happy that the court has approved this settlement," she said in an e-mail. "I want to be able to work with the trustees and other Brown family members to promote James Brown's legacy. My son James and I are grateful to the judge and hope this nightmare is finally over."

Mr. Brown's daughter, Deanna Brown Thomas, also expressed satisfaction with the ruling.

"It has been a struggle, but God has blessed us and we are thankful," she told the Associated Press. "We look forward to working towards the goals of our father by providing education scholarships for impoverished students and his own grandchildren and making his home a museum for the world to come and see."

The settlement was in contrast to the instructions spelled out in Mr. Brown's will and trust after his death on Christmas Day 2006. Some of Mr. Brown's adult children contested the bequest, claiming their father's estate was mismanaged by the three trustees who preceded Ms. Pope and Mr. Buchanan.

Although Ms. Pope and Mr. Buchanan had argued in court that the settlement left out essential parties, family members said it upheld Mr. Brown's legacy, and they called for Ms. Pope and Mr. Buchanan's removal as trustees.

The settlement agreement did just that, establishing Columbia accountant Russell Bauknight as the estate's successor trustee. Mr. Bauknight was appointed earlier to examine the proposed settlement, and he had recommended that it be approved.

In his ruling, Judge Early wrote that "the settlement is just and reasonable and provides a just and reasonable result for the charitable beneficiaries. From the perspective of the charitable beneficiaries, the risks of not approving the settlement agreement are substantial."

The value of Mr. Brown's assets has not been made public. Some of his possessions were auctioned for $850,000, partly to pay debt. Attorneys have said Mr. Brown's accounts have little money. Future income -- from royalties and the sale of Mr. Brown's likeness -- is what's at stake, attorneys have said.

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Preston Sparks at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110 or preston.sparks@ augustachronicle.com.

ONLINE EXTRA

Read the 45-page court filing on the settlement here.

WHERE IS THE MONEY GOING?

About 50%

Charitable trust

 

About 25%

Six adult children

 

About 25%

Surviving spouse, son

The settlement establishes that Tomi Rae Hynie Brown, a former backup singer to Mr. Brown, is the surviving spouse and her son, James Brown II, is his child.

Mr. Brown's attorneys had claimed she was not Mr. Brown's widow because she was still married to another man when she and Mr. Brown said their vows in 2001.

 

TIMELINE

DEC. 25, 2006: James Joseph Brown, 73, the "Godfather of Soul," dies at 1:45 a.m. at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta of a heart attack brought on by pneumonia.

DEC. 26, 2006: Trustee Buddy Dallas tells The Augusta Chronicle that Tomi Rae Hynie Brown "is not Mrs. Brown. She is not his widow," but rather his estranged girlfriend.

JAN. 11, 2007: Mr. Brown's will is read in an informal meeting at the Aiken County Judicial Center, with his adult children present but not Mrs. Brown or James II. The will calls for his personal effects to be divided equally among six named heirs: daughters Venisha, Yamma and Deanna and sons Terry, Larry and Daryl: and says any omissions are intentional. The bulk of Mr. Brown's holdings are in an irrevocable trust separate from the will, with the beneficiaries listed as Mr. Brown, the Brown Family Education Trust and the James Brown "I Feel Good" Trust. The trust gives unrestricted legal authority to trustees Buddy Dallas, David Cannon and Alford "Judge" Bradley to oversee his legacy, music rights, persona and 62-acre estate.

JAN. 24, 2007: The six named heirs file a petition demanding the removal of the three estate trustees, alleging that they have mismanaged the estate.

FEB. 1, 2007: Mrs. Brown files two petitions saying she is the "omitted spouse" and is entitled to half or one-third of his estate.

Feb. 6, 2007: Atlanta attorney Louis Levenson, representing the six Brown children and multiple grandchildren, files a motion asking that a special administrator be appointed to oversee the estate. The petition says the three trustees are also executors of his will, creating a conflict of interest because they claim to be owed money from the singer's estate.

FEB. 9, 2007: In a court hearing, Aiken County 2nd Circuit Judge Jack Early delays a decision on whether to remove the personal representatives or appoint a special administrator.

MARCH 8, 2007: Judge Early names Aiken attorney Bob Buchanan and Columbia lawyer Adele Pope "special administrators" to help the trustees execute the will.

MARCH 26, 2007: The estate attorneys file a motion asking Judge Early to order DNA taken from James II for a paternity test.

JULY 2, 2007: James II's guardian ad litem files a lawsuit seeking a claim of any inheritance for the child, saying he was unintentionally left out. An affidavit by Mr. Dallas, however, says Mr. Brown called the child "Little Man," not son, and had requested that a paternity test be done after his death.

JULY 31, 2007: The special administrators file a motion asking Judge Early to remove "one or more" of the three trustees, alleging that they've mishandled the estate. Mr. Cannon is accused of possible misconduct.

AUG. 10, 2007: Mr. Cannon hands over a check for $350,000 and resigns as a trustee. Forlando Brown, one of Mr. Brown's grandsons, tells The Chronicle there is a rift in the family and that he, his brother and his father, Terry Brown, have been ostracized for siding with the trustees. His aunts and uncles are trying to break the trust to get their father's money, Forlando Brown says.

SEPT. 24, 2007: Mr. Cannon is accused in a court hearing of mishandling $7 million of Mr. Brown's money. Judge Early orders him to pay $373,000 within 10 days for a loan Mr. Brown received against his royalties.

NOV. 7, 2007: Mr. Brown's first wife, Velma Brown, 73, files papers in Aiken County Probate Court claiming they never divorced. Her attorney, David Bell, of Augusta, says he couldn't find a divorce decree in Georgia. He says a lack of one would void any subsequent marriages.

NOV. 8, 2007: The Chronicle finds the decree divorcing Mr. Brown and Velma Brown on file in Richmond County Superior Court. It was signed by Judge John Hardin on Aug. 26, 1969.

NOV. 20: Mr. Dallas and Mr. Bradley resign as estate trustees before a hearing on their possible firings. Ms. Pope and Mr. Buchanan become trustees.

NOV. 30: The Georgia Attorney General's Office files papers saying it's not in the best interest of the trusts to have Ms. Pope or Mr. Buchanan overseeing them.

DEC. 4, 2007: Mr. Dallas tells The Chronicle he was pressured to resign by Judge Early. He and Mr. Bradley want to withdraw their resignations.

DEC. 21, 2007: Judge Early sets a deadline of 120 days to address whether Tomi Rae Hynie Brown was Mr. Brown's common-law wife at the time of his death.

DEC. 29, 2007: Five of Mr. Brown's children ask that a judge void his will. They say Mr. Dallas, Mr. Bradley and Mr. Cannon used fraud and "undue influence" when the will and trusts were drafted so that they would profit from managing the two charities.

FEBRUARY 2008: Judge Early orders that the singer's possessions and homes be auctioned to pay mounting legal bills and overdue estate taxes.

MARCH 2008: An article in GQ magazine says Mr. Brown had a vasectomy and could not be the father of James II.

APRIL 26, 2008: Judge Early orders a DNA test for James II. The test would ultimately show that James II is Mr. Brown's son.

JULY 1, 2008: Judge Early says he will order possible heirs to take a DNA test.

JULY 17, 2008: Mr. Brown's belongings fetch more than four times the amount trustees had expected at auction, allowing $400,000 in debt to be paid.

SEPT. 29, 2008: Judge Early receives a proposed settlement agreement that says Mrs. Brown was the legal wife of the singer, and all children and grandchildren mentioned in the agreement are Mr. Brown's lawful heirs.

MARCH 3, 2009: Adele Pope, the trustee, called the settlement agreement "unjust" and told Judge Early she would appeal a settlement if it's granted.