James Brown Will Dispute: Was He Legally Married When He Died?

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on January 29, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, died in 2006, but a legal battle over his estate has been going on ever since. Brown's will left his entire estate to a charitable trust, leaving nothing to the woman he married in 2001, Tommie Rae Hynie.

But legally speaking, was Hynie even Brown's spouse at all? The question arose because Hynie had married another man in 1997; she filed for an annulment of that marriage in 2004, the same year James Brown filed for an annulment of his marriage with Hynie. (Brown dismissed his action after the couple reconciled.)

After Brown's death, Hynie contested his will, claiming that she had been married to Brown at the time. In a 46-page decision (!), a South Carolina judge agreed, potentially entitling Hynie to a portion of Brown's estate -- even though she was never mentioned in Brown's will.

What's a Little Bigamy Between Friends?

After the couple's 2001 marriage, Brown found out that Hynie had married someone else -- Javed Ahmed -- in 1997. They tried to get that marriage annulled on the grounds of bigamy because Ahmed was "married to several other women at the time of their purported marriage ceremony." Private detectives couldn't find Ahmed, but after he was served by publishing a notice in the newspaper and didn't show up in court, a judge annulled Ahmed and Hynie's marriage in 2004.

But was the marriage between Hynie and Brown still good? Hynie's earlier marriage to Ahmed was void ab initio, meaning "from the beginning." South Carolina (and every other state) doesn't allow a person to be married to more than one person at a time, so any subsequent marriage, without a divorce or annulment, has no legal effect. As far as the law is concerned, it's like Ahmed and Hynie never got married at all. That means Brown and Hynie's 2001 marriage was effective.

The Omitted Spouse Statute

Most states have statutes providing for spouses and children if they were left out of the will. These statutes for an "omitted spouse" or "omitted child" allow these omitted people to collect something unless the deceased person specifically intends for a spouse or child not to inherit anything.

In Brown's case, he wasn't married at the time he wrote his will in 2000, so of course he wouldn't have made an allowance for a spouse he didn't have, but that doesn't matter. The omitted spouse statute requires only that:

  • The deceased person be married at the time of the will;
  • The spouse isn't named in the will (or intentionally excluded); and
  • The spouse isn't provided for in some other way, like in a trust.

Judge Doyet A. Early III's decision doesn't resolve whether Hynie can inherit anything or how much she may be entitled to. After 46 pages, all Judge Early determined was that Hynie was married to Brown at the time of his death, which is the first hurdle she has to jump to inherit anything.

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