Most of us don’t live the complex life of a legendary music icon, and in many respects that’s a good thing. Indeed, the legal wrangling over James Brown’s will and estate was just resolved after nearly 14 years of litigation and family infighting. That’s a long time for family members and wanna be family members to hang in limbo. Nonetheless, there are lessons that the rest of us can draw from the James Brown saga. It didn’t have to go down this way.
One of the most controversial aspects of the settlement process was the woman claiming to be Brown’s widow, Tommie Rae Hynie, a one-time backup singer for Mr. Brown. It turned out that Ms. Hynie was already married at the time of her wedding to Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown began proceedings to have the marriage annulled but never completed the process. Thus at the time of his death the status of that relationship was somewhat unclear. That uncertain status was responsible for much of the ensuing legal battle.
The lesson that the rest of us can take from that, aside from avoiding bigamy, is to keep on top of our estate documents. The documents should be up to date and reflect the current status of our relationships. Frequently, parents will create wills in order to ensure that their children are cared for in the event that they both die. Then, those documents are stowed away never to be looked at again for the ensuing decades. The kids eventually grow up and no longer require guardians, but other things do happen. Families and finances do change, and these changes should be accounted for in our estate documents.
In the Brown case provisions seem not to have been made for how future profits from copyrights would be distributed, putting the distribution of millions of dollars at risk. This again, is a lack of planning, and is a development that could cost Mr. Brown’s heirs on the hook for millions in taxes. With some forethought and planning many of those taxes could have been avoided. Again, future copyrights may not be an issue that many of us will face, but there may be ways to protect assets from present and future taxes with some smart planning. We can create trusts and arrange for tax-free gifts that protect assets from taxes now and in the future.
Much of James Brown’s life – and death – seem to have been custom designed for tabloid coverage. Yet while the facts and perhaps the sums involved might seem to have originated in a galaxy far from our own, there are familiar fact patterns. We all have family disputes and to some degree or another are afflicted by a lack of organization. With just a little bit of thought and planning, it will be possible to avoid our own estate debacle.