James Brown’s dying wish to help kids gets boost from court ruling

Nearly 14 years after his death, legendary singer James Brown may soon have his last wish fulfilled.

The entertainer known as “The Godfather of Soul” and “The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business” – who died at age 73 in 2006 -- wanted millions of dollars from his estate to go toward helping needy kids get an education.

A unanimous ruling Wednesday by the South Carolina Supreme Court may clear the way for that to happen, The Associated Press reported. Following a 14-year legal saga, the court ruled that Brown's last partner was not legally married to him – and thus has no rights to Brown’s multimillion-dollar estate.

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The state's justices ruled against Tomi Rae Hynie, deciding she failed to annul a previous marriage before becoming Brown’s partner.

The same ruling also dealt a blow to a deal brokered by Gov. Henry McMaster who, as South Carolina’s attorney general at the time, negotiated a plan in 2009 that would have given nearly half Brown’s estate to a charitable trust, a quarter to Hynie, and the rest to Brown’s adult children. The state Supreme Court overturned the deal in 2013.

At the time of the McMaster settlement, attorneys said Brown’s accounts had little money in them, the AP reported. In 2008, some of the singer’s possessions were auctioned for $850,000, in part to pay down debt, and all agreed that future income from music and movie royalties and the use of Brown’s highly marketable likeness was what remained at stake.

Brown was known for numerous hits, including “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and “A Man’s World.” He was also known for his flashy performances and dynamic stage presence.

The 2014 movie “Get On Up,” starring Chadwick Boseman, told Brown’s life story, from his impoverished childhood in South Carolina to his rise to international fame.

But drug problems and financial mismanagement ate away at his estate – and multiple lawsuits have been filed by people trying to lay claim to what's left, which courts have estimated to be between $5 million and more than $100 million.

Back in 2013, justices wrote McMaster hadn’t followed Brown’s expressed wishes for most of his money to go to charity, having instead appointed a professional manager to settle Brown's debts. Two years later, the justices ordered all estate proceedings halted pending further evaluation by a lower court.

James Brown performs in Edinburgh, Scotland, July 6, 2005. (Associated Press)

James Brown performs in Edinburgh, Scotland, July 6, 2005. (Associated Press)

Finally on Wednesday, the justices ruled that Hynie has no claims on the money, and ordered a circuit court to “promptly proceed with the probate of Brown’s estate in accordance with his estate plan.”

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That plan, outlined in Brown's will, was to create an “I Feel Good” trust that would use his music royalties to fund educational expenses for children in South Carolina and Georgia.

“The ongoing litigation since Brown’s passing has thwarted his expressed wish that his estate be used for educational purposes ... a point we find both extraordinary and lamentable,” the court wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.