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James Brown estate still a battleground

Most folks in New Jersey don't enjoy the kind of wealth that accompanies stardom in the entertainment industry, but that doesn't mean they don't have assets enough to make it worthwhile having a solid estate plan. As we live longer, we need to be proactive in making sure that our assets work for, rather than against us.

And after we're gone, we need to be clear about how any residual assets should be distributed. Failure on this front can lead to expensive, emotional, internal battles that can result in assets dying on the vine and leaving the possibility that they yield no fruit at all.

Highlighting this reality is the example of the James Brown estate. The man known as the Godfather of Soul died of a heart attack in 2006. His demise sparked years of infighting that involved Brown's adult children and a charitable trust that had been set up, in accordance with Brown's wishes, to fund scholarships for needy children in South Carolina and Georgia.

In 2009, a deal was brokered and accepted by a South Carolina judge that was supposed to end the bickering. Under the deal, half of the estate was to go to the trust, a fourth of the money was to go to Brown's widow and his youngest son. The remaining fourth was to be split between his adult children.

But two people who had been trustees of the charity, and who claim they were wrongly dismissed, have been fighting the settlement ever since. They say they want a restructured deal that restores them to their jobs. The family members say they're fine with the 2009 arrangement.

This past week, the case reached the South Carolina Supreme Court. A decision is pending. It could take months more to resolve.

Underlying the entire matter is the question of how much the estate is worth. At the time of the 2009 agreement, the value of the estate wasn't publicized. Some reports put it at about $14,000, with debts of more than $20 million. As a result of the 2009 deal, though, a professional manager was put in a position to market Brown's likeness and his music hits commercially. Since then, the debts have been repaid and the estate is believed in the black.

The point is that had paperwork been in place and up to date, much of the haggling might have been avoided.

Source: AP, NJ.com, "More wrangling over estate of late James Brown," Nov. 1, 2011

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