(Forbes) When the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, passed away on Christmas Day 2006, the world mourned the loss of the rock and roll legend. For his family, however, Brown's death marked the beginning of a dispute that continues to rage to this day, spanning probate, family and copyright laws. This battle for Brown's vast estate, including the rights to his prolific music catalog, shows no signs of stopping as it approaches its 13th year.
Questions About Brown's Final Marriage
What certainly must have been one of the more bizarre disputes ever to come before the probate courts in Brown's native South Carolina concerns whether Brown even had a surviving spouse. Brown married Tomi Rae Hynie, his fourth wife, in 2001. However, when she married Brown, Hynie was still married to another man, Javed Ahmed, whom she had married in 1997. Hynie had not divorced Ahmed before marrying Brown, nor annulled the marriage, and thus, under South Carolina's bigamy laws, Hynie's marriage to Brown should have been invalid.
But, it turned out that when Ahmed married Hynie in 1997, he was himself apparently married to three other women in Pakistan. According to Hynie, Ahmed was only using his marriage to Hynie as a path to a green card, and he left the United States shortly after the marriage.
There is an outstanding question about the accuracy of this account, as Brown's other heirs have asserted that Ahmed had not been married before and that his marriage to Hynie was more substantial than Hynie has represented it to be.
Hynie finally had her marriage to Ahmed annulled in 2004, but by then her relationship with Brown was falling apart. After a physical altercation between Brown and Hynie in 2004, Brown sought an annulment of their marriage, while Hynie countersued for divorce.
While this should have resolved the question of the validity of Brown's marriage to Hynie, the two informed the Charleston County Family Court that they had reached a settlement wherein Hynie would waive any claim of a common law marriage. However, the issue of whether Hynie and Brown were still legally married remained unresolved. According to Hynie, she and Brown reconciled and continued to live together until Brown's death.
Litigation Over Brown's Will
This unresolved question as to whether Hynie was actually married to Brown at the time of his death reared its head in 2007. On January 18, 2007, Brown's will was admitted to probate in the South Carolina probate court. Brown had prepared this will before his marriage to Hynie, and consequently, it did not provide for her at all. Hynie brought an action on February 1, 2007, to set aside Brown's will. Separately, Hynie claimed an elective share, which allows a surviving spouse to claim one-third of the decedent spouse's estate, or, alternatively, the rights of an omitted spouse, which are available to allow a surviving spouse to receive at least one-half of the decedent spouse's estate (where, as here, there are also surviving children) where the decedent spouse's estate plan was drafted before their marriage and thus unintentionally failed to provide for the surviving spouse.
Hynie fought with Brown's estate for years over whether Hynie was legally Brown's surviving spouse. In 2009, they appeared to reach a settlement, but Brown's children and grandchildren from other marriages disputed the validity of this settlement.
The court's approval of this settlement went all the way up to the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2013 and then back down to the trial courts. Finally, on July 25, 2018, the South Carolina Court of Appeals upheld a trial court ruling finding that Hynie's marriage to Ahmed was void from the start, due to Ahmed's own existing marriages, and thus she was unmarried in 2001, making her marriage to Brown valid. Consequently, Hynie has been found to be Brown's surviving spouse, entitled to all rights that status entails.
Brown's other heirs may appeal this decision to the South Carolina Supreme Court, but in the meantime, the administrator of Brown's estate settled with Hynie following the Court of Appeals ruling.
Dispute Over Paternity of James Brown II
Not only has Hynie's marriage to Brown been a source of conflict for years, but the question of whether Hynie's son, the aptly named James Brown II, was Brown's biological son is also one that arose between Hynie (and James II) and Brown's other heirs. Brown's other heirs asserted that Brown had undergone a vasectomy in the 1980s, precisely to avoid paternity suits in the future, and thus James II couldn't possibly be his son. However, James II underwent two separate DNA tests, conclusively proving that he is Brown's biological son.
Even though the controversies regarding the identity of Brown's heirs appear to be reaching a resolution, the dispute over Brown's estate is far from over. In January 2018, Brown's heirs filed a federal lawsuit against Hynie, James II, and the administrator of Brown's estate and trustee of his trust in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California over the copyrights over Brown's music catalog. This lawsuit has since been transferred to the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, but the case continues.
Thus, as is unfortunately all too common when celebrities pass away, James Brown's family appears to be locked in financially and emotionally costly litigation for the foreseeable future. What affect the ongoing proceedings have on both probate and family law in South Carolina and copyright law nationally remains to be seen, but it is certain that both legal practitioners and fans of Brown's vast works will be watching with rapt fascination.