That’s a headline to grab attention in Austin, Nashville, L.A. and for entertainers across the country – as it should. Growing use of probate instruments like wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney is putting at risk both individual liberties and property rights. An ongoing legal battle involving the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown’s estate helps illustrate this point as also does the case of Nashville rocker Danny Tate who in past years fought a questionable conservatorship (guardianship) and now is targeted in what appears a series of retaliatory actions for speaking out against the perpetrators of his alleged probate abuse and the “justice” system that allows it to continue. The general public may read or hear of such actions while continuing to enjoy an “it can’t happen to me” mindset, but such confidence is misplaced as a reality emerges in which people at all levels of wealth – be it worth $50,000 to $100,000, $1 million or far more – are targeted for Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA) actions. Wealth is relative and in today’s world – there’s always someone happy to take yours.
Disgruntled family members, wannabe heirs and/or disingenuous legal professionals are often perpetrators of IRA actions. The James Brown estate case includes the full range of these parties. Traditional media sources have widely reported on the wrangling of Brown’s heirs – the legitimate, the disinherited and the wannabe, but only The Newberry Observer is reporting on the multi-layered legal industry machinations that commenced in the years following the singer’s December 2006 death and continue today.
In 2000, Brown established the James Brown “I Feel Good” private foundation to provide scholarships for poor children in South Carolina and Georgia. Brown’s estate plan reportedly stated that upon his death, “the proceeds of his music empire, including royalties to more than 800 songs, would be rolled into his ‘I Feel Good’ Trust.” Attorneys Adele Pope and Robert Buchanan served from 2007 to 2009 as court-appointed fiduciaries of Brown’s estate and trust which includes the “I Feel Good” trust. During Pope’s tenure, Newberry Observer reporter Sue Summer reports that Brown’s music empire – per all previous Brown fiduciaries – was valued at about $100 million less a $15 million dollar debt.
Summer further writes how in late 2008 or early 2009 former South Carolina Attorney General (AG) Henry McMaster and Columbia CPA Russell Bauknight created the “Legacy Trust.” She quotes a Pope legal response describing the trust as “McMaster’s vehicle to take control of Brown’s assets and funnel $50 million from the needy and deserving students James Brown intended to benefit to claimed heirs Brown intentionally disinherited from his worldwide music empire.” AG McMaster appointed current trustee Russell Bauknight who serves at the pleasure of the attorney general. During this timeframe, the estate value was also revised to a reported $4.7 million at-death appraisal despite, per Pope, the estate generating $4 to 5 million a year in royalties alone prior to Brown’s death.
And though Brown’s will and trust included clauses excluding from distributions any parties that challenged his estate plan, McMaster ultimately negotiated a settlement deal giving away more than half of Brown’s music empire to those Brown specifically disinherited, including his former companion Tommie Rae Hynie and about half of his alleged children. Summer describes Tommie Rae Hynie as follows:
After Brown’s death in 2006, Hynie claimed to be Brown’s wife and sued his estate for a share of his $100 million music empire. The two had exchanged vows in 2001, but Hynie was married to another man at the time. When Brown discovered her marriage, he sued Hynie for an annulment. The Aiken County case was settled when Hynie signed an agreement that she would never claim to be Brown’s common-law wife.
With this backdrop, it’s difficult to believe that Brown’s final wishes are being honored. It’s troubling that the state of South Carolina has been such a force in this action. Adele Pope appears to share such sentiments as she continues working to determine how private assets that were once part of a private foundation were then legally placed in an alleged public trust in violation of the asset owner’s clear intention? And if it’s a public trust, why can’t the public access information revealing its details?
Pope has used Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to attempt accessing copies of the trust and documentation regarding the $4.7 million appraisal. The office of current Attorney General Alan Wilson – the office that prosecutes FOIA violations – has resisted all efforts. Instead, Summer reports “Legacy” trustee Bauknight having “threatened Pope with legal action and sanctions if she continued to exercise her rights under the FOIA.”
Most recently, Pope is facing a subpoena related to the diaries of Tommie Rae Hynie. Specifically, Summer writes, Pope is being asked to “turn over all written communications related to the Hynie diaries, including any communications with this reporter, any ‘blogger, website or media outlet.’”
Summer’s latest article describes a long-time Brown friend suggesting “that the diaries could be key in disallowing Hynie’s claim and returning about $25 million to the Brown trust for needy and deserving children.” The diaries were once available to all parties early in the case, but in February 2008, Judge Doyet Early issued an order for a return of the original diary to Hynie attorney Robert Rosen and other copies returned to the Clerk of Court pending a hearing. Four years later, a hearing has yet to be scheduled.
Pope has previously alleged the AG’s office is seeking to conceal public documents which would reveal “improper acts by members of the AG’s office, the previous AG and/or the trustee of the ‘Legacy Trust.’” The Hynie diaries could further support that claim if, as some believe, they reveal Hynie’s ineligibility as a Brown heir and that the AG’s office elected to disregard or neglected to investigate this important point.
Through the state of South Carolina’s revision of James Brown’s estate plan, the entertainer’s property rights appear to have been posthumously disregarded while his designated beneficiaries’ inheritance rights – namely the children for whom he intended scholarships – appear violated. The state’s failure to respect Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests creates concerns over its commitment to transparency and open government as well as its approach to taxpayer accountability. This latest development seems now to flirt with free speech and freedom of the press issues which further heighten the case’s ever-intriguing nature and the warning it should send the public regarding the safety of their own property.
While the James Brown estate gives an important example of posthumous asset diversion, Nashville musician Danny Tate’s experiene shows that while alive – probate actions can also be used to target property and other individual liberties.
Nashville musician Danny Tate admits his struggle with alcohol and drug issues may at a point have merited assistance, but never would he – or most anyone else – have dreamed that such “help” would manifest as the near depletion of his $1.5 million estate and a continued assault on any future prosperity. These, however, are the circumstances directly resulting from a 32-month “temporary” conservatorship petition initiated in October 2007 by his brother David Tate, facilitated by attorney Paul T. Housch and sanctioned by Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Randy Kennedy.
A series of articles entitled Musician Danny Tate’s conservatorship: a case of caring or corruption? (Part One Part Two Part Three) provides the long, sordid details of Tate’s plight. From the beginning of this action at which time David Tate is alleged to have used a fraudulent Durable General Power of Attorney to gain initial control of his brother’s finances and then fund attorney Housch’s October 2007 petitioning for the musician to be conserved, the administrative ease and casualness of process accompanying this life-altering status is noteworthy and should serve as a cautionary tale to all Americans.
For 32 months, Danny Tate simultaneously fought to regain control over not just substance abuse, but also his civil and property rights that some court observers believe were hijacked by the Tennessee probate court. His day in court arrived only after the Middle Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed one of Judge Kennedy’s critical case rulings, an act described by Nashville Scene as “meaning the Probate Court had strayed so far from established legal procedure that an extraordinary judicial slap on the wrist was dealt to Kennedy. More remarkable still, Judge Frank Clement, the jurist who issued the Appeals Court decision, used to sit in Kennedy’s seat in Probate Court.”
This court ruling basically acknowledged the questionable process by which Tate was conserved and forced Judge Kennedy to allow a hearing that would make the 32-month “temporary” conservatorship permanent or else the status would be terminated. Danny Tate’s day in court came on May 24, 2010, and took place in a courtroom full of Tate supporters along with a local television camera crew. The hearing quickly evolved into what seemed a scripted media event with Danny Tate’s release from the conservatorship put front and center for all (especially the cameras) to see. “They saved him” seemed a recurring theme used to justify the 32-month legal ordeal which left Tate destitute.
The day’s victory played well from a public relations standpoint and was likely hoped to appease the supporters on hand, but the day’s real outcome became evident nearly three weeks later upon Judge Kennedy signing the hearing final order. Rather than signing a final order submitted by Danny Tate attorney Michael Hoskins that reflected the May 24 ruling, Judge Kennedy instead opted for a Paul T. Housch-written statement that gave the now-terminated “temporary” conservatorship of David Tate functional control over his brother’s assets through a 60-day “wind down” period. This translated practically into further depletion of Danny Tate’s estate by the “temporary” conservator despite Tate’s “rights” alleged to be restored. Judge Kennedy further demonstrated support of this course at a June 11 hearing.
Danny Tate has seen little to no relief in the last two years. The decimation to his estate has been irreparable. The May 2010 Nashville floods severely damaged his residence. Equipment used for his livelihood was also lost in the flood and later discovered as uninsured due to the policy being allowed to lapse during the 32-month “temporary” conservatorship. Tracking down his past and current, U.S. and foreign royalties is proving highly difficult. A once respectable credit rating was reduced to worthless while a stream of government-oriented administrative complications and legal obstacles continue to a point that “questionable” ceases to be a strong enough descriptor.
Most recently, Housch filed a motion asking for the sale of Tate’s house in order to collect legal fees stemming from the conservatorship – fees ascribed to Housch and to former Danny Tate attorney Michael Hoskins. While Estate of Denial® certainly supports property rights including one’s right to pursue legitimate claims or debts, legitimacy is not a term many observers see as applicable to this case. Contrived seems more appropriate.
And speaking of contrived – or seemingly so – the same day Tate received the Motion for Order of Sale of his home, he also received a Notice of License Revocation. In a Pauper v. Probate: Motion for Order of Sale blog post he asks, “Coincidence? Hardly. Without the ability to drive, it would be challenging to show up to defend the Order of the sale of my home.” One has to wonder.
Tate has been a vocal critic of Randy Kennedy’s court and its appearance of needlessly sanctioning actions that target specific individuals for denial of their personal liberties and/or property rights. Tate’s is not the only case in recent years to attract attention. The Nashville media has somewhat covered several cases, the Tennessee legislature is well aware of this court’s activities, yet nothing happens to stop this assault on private citizens.
In this recent post, Danny Tate also asks:
For those that have stood fast to this “cause”, I humbly request making calls to Senate Judiciary Committee members, write emails to the same, call the Nashville Bar, even make calls to the Court of the Judiciary.
This action has mandated the return of Pauper v. Probate, in the First Civil Court of Public Opinion. Like Al Pacino’s character in Godfather III, “Everytime I try to get out, they pull me back in.”
There are Constitutional provisions to stop this action, but you will find the Constitution is loathed and ignored in our legal system today. ”We, the people…”, wherein all power is inherent, must insure that our Constitution is restored to full faith and effect.
In January 2010, Nashville Scene’s Brantley Hargrove wrote a great piece on Tate’s case entitled Court-Ordered Hell — how an errant judge and a controlling sibling stripped Nashville rocker Danny Tate of his money, his livelihood and his legal rights. For now, for Danny Tate, Court-Ordered Hell indeed remains in session.
Both the James Brown estate and Danny Tate conservatorship cases suggest – at the least – that all might not be as it should when it comes to the administration and execution of probate actions. While still often occurring quietly, these cases are receiving far more attention than just a few years ago. It’s still, however, important to understand that probate abuse is a lucrative part of an entrenched system deriving its power to act from a protectionist legal industry and reform will not be allowed to come easily or quickly.
Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.