A Lesson from the King of Soul, James Brown: Beware Family Left Out of Your Will

A Lesson from the King of Soul, James Brown: Beware Family Left Out of Your Will

James Brown, the frenetic King of Soul, died in 2006 with a legacy of failed marriages, estranged children and run-ins with the law. He left his multimillion dollar estate–not to his disaffected family–but to a Trust that would provide scholarships to needy children in his native state of Georgia. According to an Irrevocable Living Trust document signed separately from his Will, Brown left his 60-acre Beech Island, SC riverfront home, the rights to his name, music and business assets for the education of his grandchildren under the age of 35 and disadvantaged young people from South Carolina and Georgia. Sadly, none of these needy children has received a dime because his children are contesting his Will.

Brown’s five children are challenging the Trust

Brown’s five children were all named in Brown’s Will, but this document provided only for the distribution of personal possessions such as cars, clothes, and jewelry—not the really important high-ticket items like homes, property–Brown’s children want to turn his former home into a Graceland-style attraction–and music rights, which continue to accrue.

What’s at stake: the value of Brown’s music continues to increase

In addition to the expensive real estate that was in his Trust, Brown’s estate continues to increase in value—his music remains popular and generates millions of dollars/year in royalties. Forbes Magazine estimates that Brown’s estate earned $5 million between October 2006 and October 2007 alone. Earning power doesn’t necessarily end at death–last year’s incomes from the estates of Elvis Presley ($49 million) and John Lennon ($44 million) demonstrate that value continues to increase posthumously. Brown’s image and his music remain valuable commodities on which it’s difficult to put a price tag.  

The estate is hopelessly stalled

The estate is tied up in lawsuits, two sets of executors have been replaced, millions of dollars are being eaten up by creditors, attorneys and various vendors. The state of South Carolina and the Courts have gotten involved.

What can we learn from James Brown’s mismanaged estate?

The King of Soul led a particularly messy life—and there’s more. DNA tests show that he has three illegitimate children who apparently are also stepping forward to lay claim to the estate. The lesson: When there’s a lot of money at stake, it’s not unlikely that unhappy heirs will challenge an estate plan.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Wills are often challenged when a decedent cuts one or some of them out of the estate entirely or where the inheritance varies dramatically among the heirs. In Brown’s case, he had an $86 million estate, but left only personal items to his children. This dispute can be avoided by providing a no-contest clause, stating that any heir who challenges the Will shall receive nothing at all. Ironically, Brown did have a no-contest clause, but in his case, it’s only effective when heirs have something to lose. Brown’s mistake was in not leaving them anything substantial enough to make it worthwhile to avoid a court fight. Had he left his common-law wife and children a relatively small portion of his fortune–perhaps $500,000 each—Brown’s heirs might have decided that half a million dollars was something they didn’t want to lose and walked away. It’s been nine years since James Brown’s death, and this sad scenario so far bears little resemblance to the noble legacy that the King of Soul envisioned for himself.

You don’t need an to have an estate to need an estate plan! Clarifying how your estate will be divided among your heirs is one of the most thoughtful things you can do for your family. Stop in to one of California Document Preparers’ three Bay Area locations to get started on your Living Trust today.