Jan 06, 2008

Unhappy Children Challenge James Brown's Last Will: A Cautionary Tale

Most parents worry about how their children will feel about their inheritance, especially those that don't choose to leave everything to the little darlings. Now, from the ever-fascinating world of celebrity estate planning, comes a cautionary tale worth a moment's notice. James Brown, who died on Christmas Day, 2006, left behind a will that is being challenged by five of his children. Why? Well, they didn't receive the bulk of their father's fortune. Instead, most of the money was left to family trusts set up to benefit Brown's grandchildren and the "I Feel Good" Trust for the education of needy children in Georgia and South Carolina. (Whether he left behind much money at all is another story for another day. This story is about his intentions, and theirs.) It is not easy to overturn a will--there are really only two ways to do this: You must prove that the testator (the person who made the will) was either unaware of what he or she was doing or that the testator was being pressured to write their will in a certain way by someone who stood to benefit from it. James Brown's children are arguing that he was pressured to leave his money to the trusts so that his long-time advisers would benefit from managing the trusts after his death. The advisers deny this, arguing that if they really wanted to pressure Mr. Brown, they could have forced him to leave them money directly. Regardless of whether or not the children succeed in court, it is certain that their challenge will cost the estate time and money, both of which could have been saved had "The Godfather of Soul" done a few simple things before he died (to avoid legal challenge to your will, take note): 1) Talk About Your Plans With Your Family. Mr. Brown could have told his family about his charitable plans before he died. Had they known that he intended to leave his estate in trust for his grandchildren and needy children, they might have been less surprised when they read his will. 2) Involve Your Children in Philanthropy. Mr. Brown might have involved his children with the charitable trusts during his lifetime, so that honoring his legacy would have become a family mission, not something to be challenged in court. If you are passionate about a social cause, don't wait until your death to support it. Involving your children in what you care about most has many benefits: your children may get to know you better; they can learn about the rewards of social action; and you can work to make the world a better place together. 3) Don't Leave Old Estate Planning Documents Around. Brown's children are arguing that earlier wills created by their father cast doubt about his charitable inclinations. You always have the right to change your mind about your estate plan, but don't create confusion by leaving old wills and trusts where people will find them after your death. When you revise your documents, destroy the old ones, and make sure to get any copies you've distributed to others back as well. 4) Make Sure That Your Estate Plan Is Clear. If you don't want to leave your estate to your children, say so explicitly. It is much harder to challenge a will that specifically disinherits children than one that simple leaves them out. Judges work hard to protect the wishes of people who have died, so the clearer your wishes are stated, the harder it will be for those unhappy with them to argue that you didn't mean what you said. To read more about the story of James Brown's estate, see Time Magazine and Associated Press coverage.

For a comprehensive guide to estate planning essentials, see Plan Your Estate, by Denis Clifford (Nolo).

Liza Weiman Hanks