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In re Estate of Brown

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

July 25, 2018

In Re: The Estate of James Brown a/k/a James Joseph Brown, Tommie Rae Brown, Respondent,
David C. Sojourner, Jr., in his capacity as Limited Special Administrator and Limited Special Trustee, Deanna Brown-Thomas, Yamma Brown, Venisha Brown, Larry Brown, Terry Brown, and Daryl Brown, Respondents below, Of whom Deanna Brown-Thomas, Yamma Brown, Venisha Brown, Terry Brown, Michael Deon Brown and Daryl Brown are the Appellants. Appellate Case No. 2015-002417

          Heard April 17, 2018

          Appeal From Aiken County Doyet A. Early, III, Circuit Court Judge.

          Robert C. Byrd and Alyson Smith Podris, both of Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, LLP, of Charleston; Katon Edwards Dawson, Jr., of Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, LLP, of Columbia; and Marc Toberoff, of Malibu, CA, all for Appellants Deanna Brown Thomas, Yamma Brown, and Venisha Brown. Matthew Day Bodman, of Matt Bodman, PA, of Columbia, and David B. Bell, of Augusta, GA, both for Appellants Michael Deon Brown and Daryl J. Brown. John Andrew Donsbach, Sr., of Donsbach Law Group, LLC, of Martinez, GA, for Appellant Terry Brown.

          Robert N. Rosen, of Rosen Law Firm, LLC, of Charleston; S. Alan Medlin, of Columbia; Thomas Heyward Carter, Jr., Andrew W. Chandler, and M. Jean Lee, all of Evans Carter Kunes & Bennett, PA, of Charleston; David Lawrence Michel, of Michel Law Firm, LLC, of Charleston; and Arnold S. Goodstein, of Goodstein Law Firm, LLC, of Summerville, all for Respondent.

          SHORT, J.

         In this case involving the estate of James Brown, six of Brown's children appeal from the trial court's grant of Tommie Ray Brown's (Respondent's) motion for summary judgment, arguing the trial court erred in finding the marriage between Respondent and Brown was not bigamous. We affirm.


         Respondent married Javed Ahmed on February 17, 1997. Thereafter, she married Brown on December 14, 2001.[1] Respondent brought an action to annul her marriage to Ahmed on December 15, 2003, and in its April 15, 2004 order, the Charleston County Family Court found her marriage to Ahmed was void ab initio. The court found Ahmed was married at the time of his marriage to Respondent, and therefore, he lacked capacity to marry her.[2]

         Brown and Respondent separated after Brown was arrested on January 28, 2004, for criminal domestic violence as a result of an altercation between Brown and Respondent. Brown sought an annulment from Respondent on May 6, 2004, asserting Respondent was legally barred from entering into a marriage to Brown because she was married to Ahmed at the time of their marriage ceremony. Respondent filed a counterclaim, seeking a divorce on the grounds of physical cruelty and adultery. In a consent order of dismissal filed by the Aiken County Family Court on August 16, 2004, the parties informed the court they had reached an agreement, and Respondent agreed to "forever waive any claim of a common law marriage to [Brown], both now and in the future." Respondent states she and Brown reconciled and lived together until his death.

         Brown died on December 25, 2006. His will devised his personal effects to six named children: Deanna Brown-Thomas, Yamma Brown, Venisha Brown, Terry Brown, Michael Deon Brown, and Daryl Brown (collectively, Appellants). Brown's will was admitted to probate on January 18, 2007. On January 26, 2007, the Aiken County Probate Court removed the matter to the circuit court, and the probate court continued to remove all matters filed in Brown's Estate to the circuit court. On February 1, 2007, Respondent brought an action to set aside Brown's entire will, which did not name her or their son as beneficiaries, based on alleged undue influence and fraud.[3] She separately claimed an elective share or an omitted spouse's share of the Brown estate.

         Appellants and Respondent participated in mediation on August 10, 2008, and reached a settlement agreement. The agreement states "[t]he settling parties intend for the agreement to be a binding private settlement agreement but also are seeking court approval of the settlement." The parties agreed Respondent "was the legal wife of [Brown], during his lifetime and at the time of his death, and qualifies as his surviving spouse." The court approved the settlement agreement on May 26, 2009. However, on May 8, 2013, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed and remanded the approval of the settlement to the trial court because of a lack of evidence showing a fair and reasonable settlement of a good faith controversy. See Wilson v. Dallas, 403 S.C. 411, 450-51, 743 S.E.2d 746, 767-68 (2013). The court stated that "even if [Respondent was] able to establish a claim as Brown's surviving spouse, she executed a prenuptial agreement, in which she indicated that she had the opportunity to consult with counsel of her own choosing and waived all rights to Brown's property or any statutory claims against his estate," and a valid prenuptial agreement would normally preclude any right to an elective share. Wilson, 403 S.C. at 440, 743 S.E.2d at 762.

         In the interim, a hearing was held and several other motions were filed, but what is relevant to this appeal is that on April 28, 2014, Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting there was no genuine issue of material fact as to her marriage to Brown, and she was entitled to summary judgment on the issue of the validity of her marriage as a matter of law. On June 2, 2014, Appellants joined in on a motion for summary judgment, limited to the sole assertion that Respondent was not Brown's surviving spouse at the time of his death.[4] After a hearing on the motions, the trial court filed its order on January 13, 2015, granting Respondent's motion for summary judgment. The court found Respondent and Ahmed never had a valid marriage because it was a bigamous marriage, and thus, Respondent had no impediment to her valid marriage to Brown. Appellants filed motions to reconsider. In an order filed October 26, 2015, the trial court denied Appellants' motions to reconsider. These appeals followed.[5]


         A motion for summary judgment shall be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Rule 56(c), SCRCP. "In determining whether any triable issues of fact exist, the trial court must view the evidence and all reasonable inferences that may be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment." Pallares v. Seinar, 407 S.C. 359, 365, 756 S.E.2d 128, 131 (2014). "An appellate court applies the same standard used by the trial court under Rule 56(c) when reviewing the grant of a motion for summary judgment." Spence v. Wingate, 395 S.C. 148, 156, 716 S.E.2d 920, 925 (2011). "Because summary judgment is a drastic remedy, it should be cautiously invoked to ensure that a litigant is not improperly deprived of a trial." Id.


         I. ...

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