Issues with estate plans and their aftermath following the death of the testator happen relatively frequently in New York and across the nation. While many do not reach the level where they are discussed in the public sphere and reported in the news, it is useful to look at situations in which there is a legal dispute regarding the estate plan of a famous or prominent person. Some of the same circumstances that led to the court battle can apply to anyone. Such is the case with the late performer James Brown.

Mr. Brown died on Christmas in 2006. None of his assets have gone to his listed beneficiaries. Included are underprivileged children to whom Mr. Brown wanted to donate as much as tens of millions of dollars. There have been more than a dozen legal filings regarding Mr. Brown’s estate. The estate administrator and the decedent’s widow are being sued by his children and grandchildren as they allege there were unpublicized agreements regarding Mr. Brown’s songs and their accompanying copyrights. One case was filed to determine if his wife at the time of his death was legally his wife. That case is on appeal.

Will contests have also been ongoing as several have been filed. There has been an ongoing dispute as to who the trustee should have been in comparison to who the trustee is. Mr. Brown had numerous children and was estranged from some of them. He had been arrested, convicted and jailed for numerous charges in his life. The family has gone back and forth with the will contest trying to have it overturned. At various times, his wife and the children were on the same side in the dispute, only to begin fighting again. Another problem has been how much the estate is truly worth. In some instances, it was said to be worth less than $5 million; in others, it could be worth as much as $100 million. The copyrights to his songs are a key to the higher end amount.

A highly-contested estate with will contests, challenging a will and endless streams of disagreements can make for a messy untangling of the estate. This often happens with famous people, but it can also happen on a smaller scale for people who have many heirs, goals with charitable contributions and a muddled personal history. Having a law firm that is experienced in estate litigation can be useful to navigate the problems and try to come to a reasonable solution or go to court if necessary.

Source: The New York Times, “Why Is James Brown’s Estate Still Unsettled? Ask the Lawyers,” Steve Knopper, Feb. 4, 2018