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Singer's estate an example of why you need an estate plan

Soul singer James Brown died Dec. 25, 2006, at age 73. His estate still hasn't been settled.

It's a cautionary tale of what happens when estate planning isn't done properly, and the repercussions are about to felt for the 13th year. His death opened the floodgates to a dispute that covers everything from probate laws to copyright regulations, as well as courts in both California and South Carolina.

Just what went wrong? It's a long and complicated tale, but here's a summary.

  1. Did Brown have a wife who survived him? He married his fourth wife in 2001, but she was still married to a man she wed in 1997 and hadn't divorced. The problem was that he had three wives in Pakistan at the time of their marriage. By the time she had her marriage annulled in 2004, she and Brown were in the midst of a divorce. Eventually they reconciled.
  2. The issue of the legality of the marriage. Problems came to light in 2007 when his will was filed in a probate court. But he hadn't changed his will when he married the fourth wife, so she wasn't provided for. She brought legal action to have the will set aside and sought relief under a provision that said he unintentionally failed to provide for her.
  3. The status of his fourth wife as a surviving spouse. She fought with his estate over whether she truly was a surviving spouse. At one point, it looked as if they had reached an agreement, but Brown's children and grandchildren disagreed. Finally, a court ruled that since the woman's marriage to the Pakistani man was invalid, her marriage to Brown was legal. She was found to be his surviving spouse.
  4. The lawsuit filed by Brown's heirs against the fourth wife and others. The gist of the litigation surrounds ownership of the copyrights to the catalog of Brown's music.

In short, it's a mess.

Had Brown enacted a proper estate plan that clearly defined his heirs, updated his will to include his wife and outlined a plan for the disposition of his music catalog, the estate issue would have been settled years ago.

While we might not have estates as complicated as Brown's, we owe it to our loved ones to leave the guesswork out of how our estates should be settled. A California attorney experienced in estate planning can guide you through the process.

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