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The Payback: Brown’s estate can keep his whole fortune

By: Correy Stephenson//July 1, 2020

The Payback: Brown’s estate can keep his whole fortune

By: Correy Stephenson//July 1, 2020


Weighing in on the long-running dispute over the estate of James Brown, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that a woman claiming to have been validly married to the Godfather of Soul wasn’t his surviving spouse entitled to a share of the estate.

The decision reverses an order finding that Tommie Rae Hynie’s first marriage was void ab initio (from the start), rendering her subsequent marriage to Brown valid. The Supreme Court emphasized the importance of the state’s bigamy law, which it said required Hynie to resolve her first marriage before contracting with Brown.

Hynie participated in a marriage ceremony in Texas with Javed Ahmed, a native of Pakistan living in the United States, in 1997. In 2001, she participated in a marriage ceremony with Brown in South Carolina, following the birth of a son earlier that year. She signed the marriage license, affirming that her union with Brown was her first marriage, but Hynie and Ahmed hadn’t divorced, and no formal document purporting to terminate or void that marriage existed at that time. In December 2003, she brought an action in South Carolina to annul her marriage to Ahmed.

A family court granted Hynie’s request for an annulment from Ahmed, ruling that the marriage was void ab initio because—based solely on Hynie’s testimony and without any appearance from Ahmed—the union was bigamous, as Ahmed had three wives and lacked the capacity to marry.

When Brown learned about Hynie’s first marriage, he filed an action to annul his marriage to her. He relied upon §20-1-80, the bigamy statute, asserting that it prohibited her from entering into another marriage while she was still married to Ahmed. Hynie counterclaimed for divorce. Both parties ultimately withdrew their actions and maintained an on-and-off relationship until Brown passed away in 2006.

After his death, Hynie challenged Brown’s 2000 will and charitable trust, seeking an elective share or an omitted spouse’s share of the estate, and a share for her son with Brown. The Limited Special Administrator and Trustee (LSA) objected, arguing that Hynie couldn’t establish that she was Brown’s surviving spouse because their marriage was legally impossible under South Carolina law.

A trial court sided with Hynie, and an appellate panel affirmed, but the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case.

First, Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty found that Hynie’s annulment case was an action in rem (since the court lacked personal jurisdiction over Ahmed) that wasn’t binding on the LSA or any other third parties. Unable to rely upon the annulment to argue that her first marriage had been resolved before contracting marriage with Brown, Hynie ran afoul of §20-1-80, Beatty wrote.

“While we acknowledge there is some authority for the proposition that a marriage that is deemed void ab initio by statute need not be declared so by a court, we believe section 20-1-80, a civil statute, contemplates an orderly procedure for this determination that precludes a party from unilaterally and privately concluding a prior marriage is defective,” Beatty wrote. “In our view, section 20-1-80 requires that the resolution of the 1997 marriage be placed upon the public record prior to the subsequent marriage so that the records accurately reflect the parties’ status as married or unmarried.”

Although Hynie argued that the annulment of her marriage to Ahmed legitimized her marriage to Brown, Beatty explained that the U.S. Supreme Court has “long recognized” that such an in rem judgment isn’t conclusive or binding on third parties as to the underlying facts upon which the decision is based, even if those facts are essential to its determination. As such, the LSA’s hands weren’t tied by the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

The annulment order “simply determined [Hynie] was thereafter free to marry,” Beatty wrote. “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.”

In an effort to maintain the accuracy and accessibility of information affecting the public interest, the General Assembly established detailed procedures regarding the issuance and recordation of marriage licenses and certificates, the court explained. Section §20-1-80 declares that all marriages contracted while a party has a living spouse are void, absent one of three specified circumstances, including marriage to any person “whose first marriage shall be declared void by the sentence of a competent court.”

The LSA told the court that this exception required Hynie to obtain a court order declaring her first recorded marriage void before entering into her union with Brown, pointing to a 2008 decision in Lukich v. Lukich.

Beatty agreed that the decision established a “bright-line rule” based on the plain language of the statute: “all marriages contracted while a party has a living spouse are invalid unless the party’s first marriage has been ‘declared void’ by an order of a competent court.”

Section §20-1-80 looks to only a single point in time—the date of contracting the subsequent marriage—and doesn’t contemplate either a prospective or a retroactive perspective, Beatty said.

“We agree with [Hynie] that most bigamous marriages are void ab initio by law as a matter of public policy,” Beatty wrote. “However, also as a matter of public policy, and to protect the state’s interest in the accurate recording of marriages, the failure to resolve a prior marriage of record is also undesirable. Section § 20-1-80 promotes the state’s need for accurate public records by ensuring a marriage entered in the public record is terminated before an individual enters into another marriage of record.”

Beatty also bemoaned the “detrimental effects” of the long-running litigation.  

“Brown’s estate planning documents indicated that he intended the bulk of his wealth to be used to support his charitable trust,” Beatty wrote. “The ongoing litigation since Brown’s passing has thwarted his expressed wish that his estate be used for educational purposes, a fact confirmed by the parties in this case, who acknowledged that no scholarships have been paid for students to date, a point we find both extraordinary and lamentable.”

Neither Robert Rosen of Charleston, who represented Hynie, nor Bobby Byrd of Parker Poe in Charleston, who represented the LSA, responded to a request for comment.

The 20-page decision is Brown v. Sojourner (In re Estate of Brown) (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-051-20). The full text of the opinion is available online at

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