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In re Estate of Brown

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

May 22, 2019

In Re: The Estate of James Brown a/k/a James Joseph Brown The Estate of James Brown; James Brown Irrevocable Trust Agreement, u/a/d August 1, 2000, by and through its fiduciaries Russell L. Bauknight, Personal Representative and Trustee, and David C. Sojourner, Jr., Limited Special Administrator and Limited Special Trustee, Respondents, and Tonya Brown, a/k/a Sarah LaTonya Brown, Vanisha Brown, Larry Brown, Deanna J. Brown Thomas, Jason Brown Lewis, and Yamma N. Brown Lumar, individually and on behalf of her minor children, Sydney Lumar and Carrington Lumar, Respondents, and Daryl Brown and Terry Brown, Respondents below, Of whom Terry Brown is the Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-001373

          Submitted December 6, 2018

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

          Terry Brown, of Eastanollee, Georgia, pro se.

          Louis Levenson, of Levenson & Assoc., of Atlanta, Georgia, for Respondents Vanisha Brown, Larry Brown, Deanna Brown Thomas, Jason Brown Lewis, and Yamma N. Brown Lumar; J. David Black, of Nexsen Pruet, LLC, of Columbia, for Respondent Russell L. Bauknight; Lyndey Ritz Zwingelberg and John Fisher Beach, both of Adams and Reese LLP, of Columbia, for Respondent David C. Sojourner, Jr.; Ittriss J. Jenkins, of Law Office of Ittriss J. Jenkins, of Charleston, for Respondent Tonya Brown.

          HILL, J.

         In this estate controversy, we must decide whether some of the beneficiaries (the Probate Code defines them as "successors") under a Will can agree to settle an action they brought to contest the Will and the accompanying Estate plan without the consent of all the beneficiaries. We hold that, under the unique circumstances of this case, they can because the settlement neither binds the non-settling beneficiaries nor changes the Will or the Estate plan.

         In 2000, the legendary singer and entertainer James Brown executed a Will that devised his personal property and household effects to his six children and poured over the remainder of his estate to a charitable and educational Trust. Brown died in 2006. His Estate has been ensnared in relentless litigation ever since. See, e.g., Wilson v. Dallas, 403 S.C. 411, 416, 743 S.E.2d 746, 749 (2013). Several of his children and grandchildren-whom we shall refer to as "Respondents"-contested the 2000 Will and Trust, seeking to set them aside on the grounds that he lacked testamentary capacity and had been unduly influenced.

         In 2015, the Estate and the Trust, acting through the Personal Representative, the Trustee, and the Limited Special Administrator and Trustee (the Fiduciaries), [1]reached a settlement of the will contest with Respondents, wherein each Respondent agreed to dismiss their will contest claims in exchange for payment of $37, 500.00. Respondents would retain other rights, including (as to the Respondent children) the devise of personal property under the Will. The Fiduciaries presented the settlements to the circuit court seeking confirmation of their authority to enter them on behalf of the Estate and Trust, a procedure contemplated by § 62-3-105 of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2018). Two of Brown's children-Terry Brown, who never contested the Will and Trust, and Daryl Brown-opposed the settlements and their confirmation. After a hearing, the circuit court entered an order confirming the Fiduciaries' authority to enter into the settlements. The circuit court further ruled Respondent children had probable cause to contest the Will and the Trust, and the settlement was just and reasonable.

         Terry Brown (Appellant) now appeals, claiming the Fiduciaries lacked authority to enter the settlements because his consent was required by §§ 62-3-912, 62-3-1101, and 62-3-1102 of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2018). He further contends the circuit court erred in finding probable cause and in finding the settlements just and reasonable.

         I.

         According to Appellant, under South Carolina law there are only two ways to settle a will contest: by entering into a private family settlement agreement as provided by § 62-3-912, or presenting the settlement to the court for approval as provided by §§ 62-3-1101 and 1102. Because he contends both ways require the consent of all successors, Appellant claims the settlements here are invalid because he did not agree to them.

         The issues Appellant raises require interpretation of several sections of the Probate Code, which are questions of law that we review de novo. Univ. of S. Cal. v. Moran, 365 S.C. 270, 274-75, 617 S.E.2d 135, 137 (Ct. App. 2005); see also Barton v. S.C. Dep't of Prob. Parole & Pardon Servs., 404 S.C. 395, 414, 745 S.E.2d 110, 120 (2013).

         II.

         A. Sec ...


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