Stella Case No. 010, Originally Published: 9 October 2002
Singer James “Godfather of Soul” Brown was briefly committed to a psychiatric hospital by his daughter Deanna Brown Thomas in 1998 for addiction to painkillers. Brown has since held a “grudge” against her and his other daughter, Yamma Brown Lumar, they allege. They say that when he got out of the hospital, Brown “vowed to the media that his daughters will never get a dime from him” and “James Brown has kept his word.”
Gosh: cut off in his will for locking him in a nuthouse? Well, that calls for strong action, so they did what any kid would do when cut off from daddy’s bank account: they sued him for more than $1 million, claiming that they are owed royalties on 25 of his songs which, they claim, they helped him write. Even though, at the time, they were children. For instance, when Brown’s 1976 hit “Get Up Offa That Thing” was a chart-topper, the girls were aged 3 and 6.
“This is a sad scenario,” says their lawyer. Yep: it’s enough to make Brown switch genres to the Blues.
- “Singer James Brown Sued by Daughters,” Associated Press, 18 September 2002
Brown died on Christmas 2006, at 73, which led to much more legal tussling over his will — multiple lawsuits were filed. It all got so convoluted that it’s probably impossible to trace the outcome of this specific suit, since it was probably absorbed by a bigger one. This case was a Runner-Up for the 2002 Stella Award.
In a fascinating bit of timing, the judge presiding over the tussle over Brown’s will held a hearing in late June (2020)!
The South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously in June that Tommie Rae Hynie was not legally married to Brown as she was still legally married to someone else at the time of her supposed marriage to the singer. When Brown discovered that in 2004, he filed to annul his marriage to Hynie. The judges apparently decided an annulment wasn’t necessary, since the marriage wasn’t valid to begin with.
The court ordered a lower court to “promptly proceed with the probate of Brown’s estate in accordance with his estate plan.”
That plan set up the charitable “I Feel Good Trust” to provide scholarships to poor children in in South Carolina and Georgia. “Has one scholarship been given, pursuant to Mr. Brown’s will?” asked Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty from the bench. “Maybe some, Your Honor,” Hynie’s lawyer responded. “So all the people who’ve gotten any money out of this are the lawyers, thus far?” Beatty called that “quite bothersome, considering the will was clear.”
Despite more than a dozen years of litigation, the value of Brown’s estate is still unclear: estimates range from $5 million to $100 million, and that doesn’t even include the value of his around 900 songs’ copyrights, which were sold to a music publisher before he died. Provisions in copyright law could return those copyrights to Brown’s heirs “after several decades.”
Brown had tried to short-circuit challenges to his year-2000 will with a clause that disinherited any heir that challenged it. Still, several of his children and grandchildren filed lawsuits over its provisions.
With Hynie out of the way, might things now proceed? Not smoothly, at least: Brown and Hynie had a son, James Brown II, and he has petitioned to be an heir.
Still, let’s hope that the scholarships will start flowing to the underprivileged children Brown meant to help.
Update Source: “James Brown’s Will: Is It Inching Toward Closure After 14 Years?” New York Times, 25 June 2020
The case was a Runner-Up for the 2002 Awards.
My 2020 Thoughts on the Case
If nothing else, this case shows the importance of having a clear will. If Brown didn’t have that, imagine how much crazier all of this would have been! You don’t have to be rich and famous to have an estate. If you have any specific desires for your assets after you die, you need to work with an attorney who specializes in estates to get the paperwork in order right now.
Rick in Washington: “I enjoyed the first part of the story well enough, but was badly disappointed with the cliffhanger-like ending. There was no conclusion. A Stella without a verdict is a waste of time.”
The True Stella Awards isn’t about ridiculous rewards resulting from lawsuits, it’s about the abuse — or apparent abuse — of our civil courts. I don’t even claim every case presented is “outrageous”; I said from the beginning that readers, as “jurors in the Court of Public Opinion,” should look at the cases and decide for yourselves whether the people bringing the cases are “using the courts to redress justifiable grievances that can’t otherwise be settled? …Or are they trying to extort money from anyone they can? Are the lawyers involved champions of justice? …Or are they helping to abuse the system in the name of getting a piece of the action? You be the judge!”
I presented the case for you to judge for yourself; if you disagree that it’s “abuse,” fine! But the conclusion of the case doesn’t really matter; it’s either abuse or it isn’t, whether it’s upheld or thrown out or settled out of court. Waiting some number of years for the conclusion won’t change that, and a television-like instant resolution is far from typical in real-world cases.
John in California: “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Every time I read the Stella Awards I can’t help but roll on the floor laughing. The reality hits: THESE ARE TRUE. Then I want to go out and slap some lawyer. Great job.”
Just be careful, John: lawyers can slap back!
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