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The Legal Battle Over Music Legend James Brown's Estate

Benjamen Walker

The legendary James Brown passed away in 2006, but the battle over his multi-million dollar estate still rages on in the South Carolina courts. The godfather of soul’s will leaves the bulk of his assets to a scholarship fund for poor children in South Carolina and Georgia—the “I Feel Good” Trust.

More than a decade later, though, the trust has yet to give out any money. That’s because Brown’s children and the woman who claims she is his widow are challenging the will. And now, a reporter covering the fight over the Brown estate has been drawn into the legal battle.

WFAE’s Duncan McFadyen talks to Morning Edition host Marshall Terry about the situation.

MT: So just how much money is at stake here?

DM: Most estimates are in the neighborhood of $100 million. This includes the copyrights for James Brown’s songs as well as the rights to his name and image. And we should probably point out here that this is playing out in South Carolina courts because Brown made his home near Aiken.

MT: And why is this fight still going on so long after his death?

DM: Well it’s a very complicated situation, Marshall. Brown’s will creating the education trust was written in 1999. Then in 2001, he married Tommi Rae Hynie, one of his back up singers. Two years after that, though, Brown found out that Hynie was still married to another man. The two separated for a time, then got back together and were together when he died.

MT: Then he died in 2006?

DM: Right. And Hynie felt she was entitled to half of his estate. Getting in the way of that, of course, was that she was still considered to be married to this other guy. Now stay with me here Marshall…Hynie’s lawyers fired back, saying that marriage was never valid because that man had other wives in his native Pakistan. That conflicts with bigamy laws. Last month a South Carolina court agreed and ruled that Tommi Rae Hynie is indeed the widow of James Brown. Lawyers for the "I Feel Good" Trust say that neither Brown nor Hynie believed they were married at the time of his death, and that what she wrote in her diary confirms that. 

MT: Wow…OK so let’s rewind for moment. Why does it matter anyway whether the two were legally married, if Brown’s will leaving almost everything to the Trust is valid?

DM: Good question. South Carolina law says that if the two were married after the will was executed and still married at the time of his death, Tommi Rae Hynie would be entitled to at least half of the $100 million estate. And remember, they got married two years after the will was written.

MT: So where does this dairy come into play?

DM: OK, so this diary is actually a collection of notes found in Brown’s house after his death. In it, Tommi Rae Hynie writes that she wanted to be married. She wrote, “If he has any respect for me, he will take me to justice of the peace” …she wrote that she wanted Brown to take her to the court house and “make it right.” Lawyers for the trust say this proves she knew they weren’t legally married. Now a judge in 2008 put a gag order on everyone who had copies of this diary, but a freelance journalist who writes for the Newberry South Carolina Observer, Sue Summer, posted it on a Facebook page at the end of last month. 

MT: How did she get the diary and what’s been the reaction to her posting it?

DM: Summer says someone anonymously mailed her a copy. She claims it’s a public document under open records laws because it was used by the South Carolina Attorney General, who several years ago had tried to negotiate a settlement between the Trust and Brown’s heirs. In fact, Summer has been pushing for more than three years to have a number of documents from the case released under public records laws. Tommi Rae Hynie’s lawyers asked a court to force Summer to take the diary down and to turn over her cell phone and documents they say could reveal her sources. But last week, just before that hearing was supposed to take place, the state Supreme Court intervened and voided the subpoena. The state’s highest court says it will rule on whether she has to take down the diary.

MT: So it sounds like this has developed into two separate fights…one over the will and one over the public’s right to see documents related to that case.

DM: That’s exactly right. And Sue Summer recognizes that. She says people should pay attention to both issues:

SUMMER: Anybody who has a will, anybody who believes in a society with transparency of government…there ought to be eyes on this.

DM: Now to underline the importance of this case to open records laws, attorneys with the South Carolina Press Association are now representing Summer.

MT: So what happens next with the James Brown estate?

DM: Well, Summer estimates there are several different cases going on here. James Brown recognized six children in his will, but he only left them personal effects. There are other people who claim he was their father. And he has a son with Tommi Ray Hynie, who now has a court ruling that she is his widow. That will likely be appealed, and the will will probably have to be settled in the state Supreme Court.