The long-running feud over “Godfather of Soul” James Brown’s final will and testament has taken another odd turn after a judge declared former backup singer Tommie Rae Brown to be his legally surviving wife.
If the order stands, Brown, as the surviving spouse, could potentially claim at least one-third of the late soul singer’s estate under South Carolina law, after previously being excluded from his final wishes.
Another key plum: the ruling could lead to her collecting a portion of his song royalties — a potentially huge pot of money from such hits as “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).”
Estimates of Brown’s financial worth range from a few million dollars to potentially tens of millions.
While an appeal from Brown’s children, his estate and others from his inner-circle is likely, the woman’s attorney said the ruling is a milestone for the mother of one of the singer’s sons.
“The significance of the case is that James Brown always considered Tommie Rae Brown to be his wife,” Charleston attorney Robert Rosen said Friday.
Reached at her home in Las Vegas, Tommie Rae Brown told The Post and Courier she was pleased with the court decision and will go as far as it takes to keep the right to bear her late husband’s name.
“It’s been a very painful thing for me not to be recognized as his wife, as I always have been,” she said. She added, “I’m prepared to fight the good fight, like I promised my husband I would.”
The fight over Brown’s final wishes has been going on for years, with disagreements surfacing almost immediately after the Barnwell native, pioneer showman and king of the Apollo Theater died of heart failure on Christmas Day 2006, at age 73.
The decision disclosed on Friday centered on whether Tommie Rae (Hynie) Brown was the singer’s legal wife at the time of his death. Some of Brown’s children and others had challenged the union, saying she was already wed to another man at the time she married their father. James Brown married Tommie Rae Hynie in 2001.
In court documents, Rosen successfully argued two major points:
— Tommie Rae Brown’s previous 1997 marriage to a Texas man was illegal because he was married at the time they were wed, making him a bigamist.
— That she had taken steps to formally annul that marriage, with Brown paying the legal bills, and being notified of the process at every step of the way.
James Brown also filed his own annulment papers against Tommie Rae Brown, though he never followed through with the complaint.
In his near-50 page ruling, Circuit Judge Doeyet Early said that because Tommie Rae Brown’s original marriage was bigamous from the start, it was never a legal union to begin with in South Carolina, making her marriage to James Brown free and clear.
Also, he noted, Brown considered annulment after learning of his wife’s earlier wedding, but chose not to go through with it.
“If he wanted to annul his marriage, he could have proceeded with the action he commenced,” the order said. “But he decided not to proceed with it. As he never obtained an annulment during his lifetime, his marriage was never annulled and he was married to Mrs. Brown at the time of his death.”
A phone message left with Atlanta attorney Louis Levenson, who represents some of James Brown family members, was not returned.
While Rosen welcomed the ruling, he said it is still only a portion of the on-going fight over Brown’s estate that will include his client challenging the couple’s prenuptial agreement.
The fight over Brown’s estate has been one of the strangest in recent legal history. One of the oddest twist came in 2013 when the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned a settlement divvying up the multimillion-dollar estate, saying former Attorney General Henry McMaster didn’t follow the singer’s wishes when he interjected his own settlement.
McMaster, now the state’s lieutenant governor, brokered a 2009 settlement that divided the estate between a charitable trust, Tommie Rae Hynie, and giving the rest to his adult children.
The justices said the arrangement ignored Brown’s wishes for most of his money to go to charity for underprivileged children in Georgia and South Carolina. The settlement remains unresolved.