More than 12 years after the legendary singer died, the seemingly endless battle over James Brown’s will and estate has moved closer to a conclusion after the South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that several of Brown’s children and grandchildren could agree to a settlement with the executors of his estate, even over the objections of some of his other heirs.
Brown’s will, executed a few years before he passed away, left some property to his six children but gave much of the rest of his fortune to a charitable estate. His death in 2006 kicked off a lengthy fight in which his descendants sought to have the will set aside. In 2015, most of those beneficiaries agreed to dismiss their claims in exchange for a modest payout. But two of Brown’s children, Daryl and Terry Brown, opposed the settlement and contended that it couldn’t be approved without their consent.
Aiken County Circuit Court Judge Doyet Early approved the agreement anyway, and the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in a unanimous May 22 decision.
Judge D. Garrison Hill, writing for the court, said that the circuit court could approve the agreement without Daryl or Terry’s consent because the settlement itself did nothing to alter their interests in the estate. The fact that the underlying litigation that the rest of the family was agreeing to abandon might have potentially been successful in having the will set aside was irrelevant, the court held.
“The compromise here does not affect Appellant’s beneficial interest: he will receive precisely the same thing under the Will and Trust that he would have received had Respondents never challenged the Estate plan,” Hill wrote. “This is not a situation [where] there is evidence estate funds used to pay the settlement reduced Appellant’s inheritance.”
The only reason for having a law that lets judges approve agreements to distribute an estate’s assets in ways different from what the deceased had intended is to prevent the estate’s assets from being bled away through protracted litigation, Hill wrote—something that has been a noticeably prominent aspect of the Browns’ dispute, which has generated millions of dollars in legal fees over more than a decade.
“Appellant is asking us to amend [the statute] to allow a non-settling successor to veto the settlement of an estate controversy even where the settlement does not affect his beneficial interest and does not bind him,” Hill wrote. “This of course we cannot do, and Appellant’s position would allow a holdout successor to force the Fiduciaries to engage in the very thing [the statute] is intended to avoid: dissipating the Estate in wasteful litigation.”
The Court of Appeals also held that a statute governing private family settlements didn’t apply to the agreement at issue because the deal didn’t alter the interests to which any of the children were entitled under the will, and so it preserved the estate plan rather than disturbing it.
Louis Levenson of Levenson & Associates in Atlanta represented most of the respondent Brown family members, and David Black of Nexsen Pruet in Columbia and John Beach and Lyndey Bryant of Adams and Reese in Columbia represented the fiduciaries for James Brown’s estate. None of the attorneys could be reached for comment on the court’s ruling.
Terry Brown represented himself on appeal. He also could not be reached for comment.
The eight-page decision is In re Estate of Brown (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-050-19). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.
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