The Fate of James Brown's Fortune Turns Thanks to a Most Unusual Court Decision

Bigamy throws rights to the songs of Godfather of Soul up in the air.
Illustration by: Taylor Callery

Two years before James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul," died at the age of 73 in 2006, he filed court papers to annul his fourth and final marriage, his ties to Tomi Rae Hynie, his one-time backup singer. The reason? She allegedly had never divorced her first husband. The aftermath will surely go down in the annals of music and legal history. It was the subject of a fairly mind-blowing opinion this week from the South Carolina Supreme Court. What's more, the decision figures to impact rights to Brown's songs — plus give copyright scholars plenty to think about. 

What did Hynie do in the face of being kicked out of her marital home with Brown?

Well, fourteen years ago, she filed for her own annulment from that first husband, Javed Ahmed. At a 2004 hearing in Charleston County, she told a wild story. According to Hynie, Ahmed was already himself married to three other women. The native of Pakistan allegedly told her about these wives after their marriage ceremony and disappeared without consummating the marriage. He was only interested in U.S. citizenship.

Ahmed never showed up to that hearing, so by default, the marriage between Hynie and Ahmed was annulled. Which meant there was no impediment for Hynie to have married Brown. The soul legend amended his annulment papers and then withdrew them. Shortly thereafter, he died, leaving Hynie as the surviving spouse.

Or so we all believed until Wednesday when after 14 years of struggles over the James Brown Estate, the South Carolina Supreme Court took a look at this bigamy upon bigamy situation and totally upended the balance of power.

South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Wayne Beatty writes that the annulment between Hynie and Ahmed — the "in rem" judgment — isn't binding on the world.

"The underlying factual findings as to her marriage ceremony with Ahmed and, more specifically, Ahmed's true marital status in 1997, do not bind those who had no opportunity to be heard on the matter," states the opinion. "The fact that Brown did not pursue his own annulment action is not determinative of his marital status in this estate proceeding to ascertain if Brown has a surviving spouse, as a void marriage may be challenged at any time, even after the death of a spouse."

Who are these other challengers, essentially arguing that Brown couldn't have married a woman who was married to another man never officially confirmed to be married to three other women?

That would be administrators running the estate who have their eyes on donating much of Brown's fortune (or whatever is left after this lengthy legal battle) to scholarships to needy children. It would also be Brown's children and grandchildren, who will presumably gain a bigger piece of his legacy with Hynie out of the picture.

Ultimately, that's what the Supreme Court achieves, ruling that Hynie is not the surviving spouse because her bigamous relationship with Brown must be void.

Seemingly straight-faced, Beatty adds, "The uncertainty that arose as to [Hynie's] marital status in the current case and the lengthy legal process that ensued, to the detriment of all those concerned, is precisely the type of problem section 20-1-80 addresses by requiring the orderly recording of marriages and any terminations to facilitate the accuracy of the public record."

All this will have ramifications.

Presently, all these parties are involved in a separate case in federal court arguing over notices of copyright termination. Hynie had previously served notice on Warner/Chappell Music, the publisher and rights holder of James Brown's back catalog, on 138 of Brown's compositions. According to court papers, she then came to a $1.875 million deal with Warner/Chappell to transfer back rights to five of the songs in a way that allegedly favored herself to the disadvantage of Brown's children.

And now? 

On Thursday, the judge overseeing this case ordered further briefing about the significance of South Carolina Supreme Court's decision that Hynie is not the surviving spouse. Who actually owns James Brown songs now and in the future? Stay tuned.