I’m probably going to get at least a little flack for bringing this up, given the timing and the circumstances, but there’s an interesting development in the aftermath of James Brown’s death that I couldn’t help noticing. I saw it yesterday, but didn’t get a chance to post about it, but apparently, according to a car locksmith DC staff member, there’s some question about Brown’s marital status that’s resulted in his wife being locked out of their home and car.
James Brown’s lawyer said Tuesday that the late singer and his partner were not legally married and that she was locked out of his South Carolina home for estate legal reasons.
“It’s not a reflection on her as an individual,” lawyer Buddy Dallas told The Associated Press. “I have not even been in the house, nor will I until appropriate protocol is followed.”
Brown’s partner, backup dancer Tomi Rae Hynie, was already married to a Texas man in 2001 when she married Brown, thus making her marriage to Brown null, Dallas said. He said Hynie later annulled the previous marriage, but she and Brown never remarried.
“I suppose it would mean she was, from time to time, a guest in Mr. Brown’s home,” Dallas said.
Wow. Demoted from wife to house guest, and before the man’s body is even cold. It’s not an unfamiliar story, but fortunately for Hynie the Godfather of Soul wasn’t gay and they weren’t a same-sex couple.
There are, doubtless, a number of unknown factors behind the move to lock Hynie out of the house within hours of Brown’s death. One that comes to mind is that perhaps Brown’s family and others (like his lawyer and accountant) objected to their relationship and took steps to sever any ties upon Brown’s death. Perhaps Brown’s will was never updated to include Hynie, and the lockout is the first step in establishing that. She says she did not own the deed to the house, and thus has no legal right to live there. That is, if she is really not Brown’s legal spouse. There’s some question as to whether the paperwork to annul her previous marriage was improperly filed.
Dallas says Hynie was not fully divorced from a Texas man in 2001 when she married Brown, thus making her marriage to the “Godfather of Soul” invalid. He said Hynie later annulled the previous marriage, but she and Brown never remarried.
She indicated that while annulment papers relating to her previous marriage initially may not have been filed properly, a judge had told her she was legally married to Brown.
In a phone interview with the Associated Press, Hynie said she had documentation to prove she was legally married to Brown. Hynie said the couple had planned to renew their vows but not remarry.
Either way, what’s happening to Tomi Rae Hynie is a pretty common story when it comes to same-sex couples, especially when one partner dies unexpectedly or after an illness, and without leaving a will. And how many people don’t have wills, or have wills that are seriously out of date? Research suggests the number is somewhere between 70% and 80%. Why? Probably because they either (a) think they’ll always have time to get their affairs in order, or (b) because it involves something they don’t want to think about: mortality. I’d actually throw in a “c” answer; because they can take for granted some degree of protection in the absence of a will, if they’re (a) heterosexual and (b) married.
That’s why I think Tomi Rae Hynie still has a fighting chance at getting back into the house, and get some kind of an inheritance. I’m no legal expert, but if she can prove she and Brown had a common-law marriage, she might have a shot. South Carolina is one of the few states that recognizes common-law marriage (not for same-sex couples, of course), and Hynie and Brown’s relationship just might meet the requirements, thus entitling her to the benefits of common law marriage.
If you live in one of the above states and you “hold yourself out to be married” (by telling the community you are married, calling each other husband and wife, using the same last name, filing joint income tax returns, etc.), you can have a common law marriage (for more information on the specific requirements of each state, see next page). Common law marriage makes you a legally married couple in every way, even though you never obtained a marriage license. If you choose to end your relationship, you must get a divorce, even though you never had a wedding. Legally, common law married couples must play by all the same rules as “regular” married couples. If you live in one of the common law states and don’t want your relationship to become a common law marriage, you must be clear that it is your intention not to marry.
And that means that Tomi Rae is entitled to a percentage of the estate even in the absence of a will. It might even get her back into the house, if she can also prove that’s what her husband wanted.
When I heard this story, I couldn’t help thinking of how many times I’d heard it before, when I worked at a gay organization and later at an AIDS organization. I remember opening the door one morning to find a man in tears on the other side. I let him in and sat him down. He calmed down enough to tell me that his partner had just died. They’d been together for years, and he’d cared for his partner through his illness, during which the family remained estranged, having never accepted their son’s “lifestyle” or relationship. But when the end drew near the partner’s family swooped in, and began trying to take control of things.
When his partner died, they unceremoniously tossed him out of the house, because it wasn’t in his name and therefore he had no legal right to live there. He, like Tomi Rae Hynie, wasn’t so much a spouse as a house guest; years of care and sharing a life together notwithstanding.
I didn’t have the heart to ask him about legal documents in the middle of his grief, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if they didn’t have any. And the organization I worked for was an advocacy organization, not a service organization. Fortunately, I was able to direct him to a service organization nearby that was set up to help him in his situation. So I gave him their phone number, directions to get there (a couple of blocks away), and called to tell them I’d sent someone their way.
I don’t know what happened to that guy. If he didn’t have any legal documents spelling out their relationship, he was out of luck. He and his husband were strangers to each other, and couldn’t be anything else as a same-sex couple. That left him vulnerable to the kind of treatment he got from his partner’s family.
Fortunately, for Tomi Rae Hynie, the Godfather of Soul wasn’t gay and she’s not a same-sex partner. Legal documents or no, she at least may have a shot at having some legal rights. We can’t all say that.