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James Brown estate litigation shows importance of testator's wishes

Why is it important to make sure your estate planning documents are in order? For a reminder, one need only look to the recent case of the legendary singer James Brown. The estate of the man often called "the godfather of soul" has been the subject of contentious estate litigation for several years.

James Brown died of heart failure in 2006 at the age of 73. But disputes about control of his estate have prevented distribution of assets to his beneficiaries. The case is a cautionary tale for people in Massachusetts and across the country who doubt the need to have a clear estate plan firmly in place.

After James Brown died, his trustees faced a seemingly overwhelming debt. The debt was due to loans Brown had taken out in order to finance a comeback tour of Europe.

It was also not entirely clear which assets of the estate should go to a charitable trust and which should be divided among family members. The family members included Brown's widow and his adult children. The result was estate litigation that dragged on in the courts.

Eventually, the attorney general of South Carolina, Henry McMaster, stepped in, seeking to negotiate a resolution. A professional manager took over the assets of Brown's estate from his trustees. In 2009, McMaster proposed a settlement by which nearly half of Brown's estate would go to a charitable trust. His widow was to get a quarter of the estate. The remainder was to be divided among his children.

But this proposed settlement was itself challenged in court by the ousted trustees. Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the proposed settlement was invalid because it failed to honor James Brown's expressed wishes.

The court said that allowing such a settlement could discourage people from leaving the bulk of their estates to charity. Testators, the court reasoned, would be reluctant to make such gifts if family members could easily overturn them through estate litigation.

Source: "SC court nixes James Brown estate settlement," Newson6, Meg Kinnard, 2-27-13

Our firm handles situations similar to those discussed in this post in Massachusetts. To learn more about our practice, please visit our main page on trusts.

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