During his brilliant, troubled life, James Brown always called his own shots. So it wasn’t a surprise that Brown set the terms of his legacy after his death. And the centerpiece of that vision was to give virtually his entire fortune, valued then at roughly $100 million, to a trust to help educate underprivileged children in South Carolina and Georgia.
But nearly five years after his Christmas Day death in 2006, not one needy child has received a penny. That’s because Brown’s seven children and fourth wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, contested the will in a South Carolina court less than a month after he died. The litigation spiraled into a bitter battle with some two dozen attorneys representing various factions – and became so unwieldy that then-state Attorney General Henry McMaster made a deal in 2009 that affirmed Brown’s will but split the estate between the trust and his family, with the legal expenses borne by the trust.
The settlement was denounced by Brown’s advocates, including his longtime attorney Buddy Dallas. “How do you argue against an irrevocable will that provides for needy children? Is that even an argument?” he says. (The attorney for Brown’s children responds that the basis of his clients’ claim was that the singer had received bad advice and didn’t know what he was signing.)
Brown’s own legendary childhood – abandoned to an aunt who ran a brothel in Augusta, Georgia, working the streets for pennies and dropping out of school in the seventh grade – contributed to a dysfunctional life replete with drug abuse, failed relationships and multiple arrests. But Brown also credited it with instilling a work ethic that he saw as the foundation for his self-made success.
The singer got the idea for the trust while visiting hospitals and playing benefits to raise money for sick children in the late 1980s. “He spent a lot of time with one girl with spina bifida,” says music producer Jacque Hollander, who accompanied Brown to the hospitals. “After, he said, ‘I’m going to give them everything I have and touch their lives.'”
Brown was never close to his children – by the end, they had to make an appointment to see him – and was adamant that they wouldn’t benefit from his fortune when he died. That was made clear to Dallas at a 1988 business meeting to discuss the trust when he asked Brown, “What about your own children?” Both Dallas and Hollander say Brown pointed his finger in Dallas’ face and screamed, “Don’t you ever tell me what to do with my money! They will not ride on my back when I’m gone, Mr. Dallas! Do you hear me?”
Despite the 2009 settlement, no money has been paid to Brown’s family or the children’s trust, and won’t be until several outstanding appeals are concluded. As those cases await resolution, Brown’s estate continues to shed millions in legal fees. The current court-appointed trustee, accountant Russell Bauknight, declined to say how much money is left, citing his “fiduciary duty” to protect the estate’s privacy.
In the meantime, the respect that Brown demanded in life has all but vanished in death. The battle over his fortune has spilled into another ugly dispute, this one over where the Godfather will spend his eternity. Brown wanted to be buried at his South Carolina home, which would become a Graceland-like museum; his children, who control his remains, have them in a temporary crypt on daughter Deanna’s property – waiting, like his children’s trust, for a final resolution.
This story is from the August 4, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.