James brown left his personal and household belongings to his six adult children, two million dollars in a family trust to pay for the education of his grandchildren, with the rest passing into a charitable trust through a will. Despite Brown’s clear wishes, his heirs and Tommie Rae Hynie, who claimed to be his wife, challenge the validity of his will and trust, accusing the estate planning attorney who prepared the documents, and others, of undue influence.
The claims of Hynie and Brown’s hier created enough confusion to attract the attention of the South Carolina Attorney General. His office had legal responsibility of protecting all charitable trusts in South Carolina, including Brown’s. The Attorney General came to a settlement that recognized Hynie and her son as legitimate heirs (without DNA test) of James Brown. Regardless of Brown’s wishes, the compromise awarded approximately 25% of Brown’s assets to Hynie, another 25% to Brown’s six children as named in his will, plus James Brown II, with only one-half remaining for charity. This settlement was approved by the surrogate’s court. Three acting trustees of Brown’s charitable trust were removed from their position through this settlement. They later appealed, arguing that the settlement was against Brown’s clear wishes.
In May, 2013, the battle over his estate finally came to an end. South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the circuit court’s approval of a settlement reached by James Brown’s family members and the attorney general at the time. South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the settlement was not “just and reasonable” and in fact the heirs’ claims that started the legal battle were not made in good faith to begin with. The Supreme Court also ruled, “The compromise orchestrated by the Attorney General in this case destroys the estate plan Brown had established in favor of an arrangement overseen virtually exclusively by the Attorney General.” The Court determined the Attorney General’s actions were unprecedented and contrary to his legal duty to protect and enforce charitable trusts. On the other hand, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts decision on trustees taking advantage of their fiduciary duty, and removed them immediately. James Brown’s original estate plan was back in effect under new trustees.