From Newport Beach to the Deep South, and from the Heartland to the Pacific Northwest, pretty much every life has in one way or another been touched by modern music.  James Brown told us to “get down” and we got down, he cried “Help me now!” and we grooved along.  But, it seems there are some people who aren’t all that interested in following the wishes of the Godfather of Soul.  Brown apparently thought he had taken care of his estate planning, but there have been so many challenges and delays that those who he likely wanted to have his considerable estate will see a much smaller share than he intended.

Even though he passed away in 2006, James Brown’s fortune has been the subject of numerous court battles.  Despite the fact that he created a special trust to give $100 million to help needy children, it seems his own family is far from happy with his decision.  Instead of putting the trust to work to assist these children, his own kids and wives have waged a bit of a war over the funds.

Brown likely thought he had made his wishes clear when he worked with an estate planning lawyer to set up the trust.  Unfortunately, he didn’t update his information during the five years of his last marriage or in light of the birth of his youngest son.  To complicate matters, his other nine children and three ex-wives are all fighting over a piece of the estate.

There have been attempts on the part of the Attorney General’s office of South Carolina and the family to come up with a settlement that gave the family half of the estate.  Former trustees of the estate, however, appealed the decision of the probate judge saying that James Brown’s wishes were made clear in his estate planning and through the trust he set up.

As an estate planning lawyer in Newport Beach, it’s possible to recognize a few lessons from this ugly battle that will end up costing the needy children an incredible amount, not only because some of the money may be allocated to the family, but also because of the considerable legal fees that continue to grow.

First of all, some of the confusion revolves around Brown’s mental state.  Family members are trying to invalidate his wishes by saying he was mentally incompetent.  This is a very good argument for meeting with your estate planning lawyer well before your health or mental capacity decline.  Unfortunately, disgruntled heirs may raise issues of your mental capacity in order to challenge your will or trust arrangements.

Rather than only explaining who he wanted to get the money, Brown didn’t clearly outline who he DIDN’T want to receive a share.  By making a point to have your estate planning lawyer qualify who is disinherited and why, you can help a judge administer your estate with less disputes regarding your true wishes and intentions.

Finally, because Brown didn’t update his documents after major life events, he left room for questions.  Did he intend to leave money to his youngest child or not, for example.  By updating your estate plan after life changes, such as marriage, re-marriage, birth or death of a child, adoption, divorce, etc., you can help to avoid this kind of drama.  Even if you don’t have a $100 million to have an Orange County estate planning lawyer create a trust for you, there’s always the possibility for disputes and questionable actions on the part of your heirs, due to greed or just outright grief.