South Carolina Supreme Court Declares James Brown’s Last Partner Was Not His Legal Wife

James Brown
David Reed/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

James Brown photographed in 1973.

Judges rule Tommy Rae was not legally married to Brown, clearing way for bulk of estate to go to charity.

The  South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Wednesday (June 17) that James Brown’s last partner, Tommie Rae Hynie, was not his legal wife and therefore has no claim to over 1,200 compositions in the Godfather of Soul’s catalogue. The question over the validity of Brown’s marriage to his last “wife” Hynie has been working its way through the courts for the past 16 years and sparked litigation that began two years before Brown’s death at the age of 73.

In their 20-page decision, the judges describe unusual circumstances that have caused Brown’s estate to be in legal limbo since his death on Dec. 25, 2006. Even though she was not included in the will and two years prior to his death had waived her rights to declare she was his common-law wife, Hynie claimed to be the surviving spouse of Brown under the South Carolina Probate law and filed court papers to obtain a sizable share of his estate shortly after his death. Nine of Brown's children filed paperwork opposing her request.

While he was alive Brown and Hynie’s relationship status could be best described as complicated.  Brown believed he legally married Hynie in 2001. Prior to the marriage, Hynie signed a prenup waiving any future claim to Brown’s estate and also signed the marriage licenses affirming this was her first marriage. Two years later, however, Brown learned that Hynie was already married to someone else. When this news leaked out, Hynie filed in Dec. 2003 to have her first marriage annulled, claiming that her first husband was already himself married to three other women.

One month later, Brown filed his own legal paperwork to annul his marriage to Hynie. He also asked her to vacate their marital home. Hynie was granted her annulment from her first husband in 2004. Brown and Hynie then appeared to reconcile, with Hynie signing legal papers “forever waiving any claim of a common-law marriage" to Brown. The two  continued to have an on-and-off relationship with Brown until his death but never had another marriage ceremony.

After Brown’s death, Hynie filed to have Brown’s 2000 will and charity trust set aside based on undue influence and fraud. In 2014, the circuit court sided with Rae finding that “as a matter of law that she is the surviving spouse of Brown." The court determined that since Rae’s first marriage was void because of bigamy that she had “no legal impediment to her marriage with Brown in 2001 and their marriage was valid.” The circuit court also ruled that Brown and Rae had not annulled their 2001 marriage or divorced prior to Brown’s death. The court of appeals then affirmed that decision in 2018.

The Supreme Court, however, ultimately reversed those lower court decisions finding instead that it was undisputed that Hynie was married to someone else when she married Brown, making her marriage to him void from the beginning. Malibu Attorney Marc Toberoff, an intellectual property and copyright expert, represented the interests of nine of Brown's children in this action along with Robert C. Byrd and Alyson Smith Podris of Charleston firm of Parker, Poe, Adams & Bernstein.

“After nearly 14 years since James Brown died Christmas Day 2006, the Supreme Court's decision corrected a glaring injustice," attorney Toberoff tells Billboard. "The hardest working man in America can finally rest in peace.”

The decision clears the way for the wishes in Brown's will that the bulk of his estate be used to support his charitable trust for financial aid scholarships for the underprivileged in South Carolina and Georgia. The decision by the court also noted that “no scholarships have been paid for students to date, a point we find both extraordinary and lamentable.”

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