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Probate and Estate Litigation Blog

Court battle over James Brown's will rages on

Minnesota music fans may have been following the battle surrounding singer James Brown's estate. A recent court ruling means that the saga is far from over.

James Brown was one of the greatest figures in American music, but he never forgot that he was born into abject poverty. When Brown died in 2006, he left behind a will that would allocate most of his $100 million fortune to a trust set up to educate poor kids in the American South. Despite his wishes as expressed in his will, however, Brown's children and wife went to court in an extremely complicated will contest.

After years in court, the Brown will contest seemed to come to an end in 2009 when South Carolina's attorney general brokered a settlement. Under the deal, Brown's estate was split between the trust and his family. Now, that deal has been thrown out by the South Carolina Supreme Court, which ruled that the attorney general ignored Brown's wishes that most of his fortune should go toward educating needy kids. While the high court agreed with some of the lower court's actions, it said that the compromise deal destroyed Brown's long-established estate plan. The dispute now returns to a lower court to reevaluate and settle the estate.

Needless to say, few will contests are quite as long-running and complex as this one, and each state has its own laws regarding wills and estates. Still, the basic outlines of the battle over Brown's estate are the same as those facing many Minnesota families today.

A properly executed will is supposed to express the final wishes of the deceased who wrote it, whom the law refers to as the "testator." The court is supposed to honor these wishes as closely as possible. Interested parties then may contest the will, if they believe that something was wrong with the execution of the will. For example, a court may find that a will is invalid if it was executed under undue influence by an interested party or if the testator did not have capacity to write a valid will at the time it was created.

Source: Today, "Court: James Brown's estate distributed improperly in South Carolina," Feb. 28, 2013

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