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South Carolina Supreme Court: No Surviving Spouse Status In Dispute Over “Godfather of Soul” James Brown’s Estate

In a June 2020 decision, Brown v. Sojourner, the South Carolina Supreme Court addressed the surviving spouse status of the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown’s purported surviving spouse, Tommie Rae Brown, where Tommie had not annulled her prior marriage at the time of her marriage to Brown.

The Facts of Brown v. Sojourner

Tommie married Javed Ahmed in February 1997.

In December 2001, Tommie participated in a marriage ceremony with James Brown in South Carolina.  On the marriage license, Tommie affirmed that the marriage to Brown was her first marriage.  However, Tommie and Ahmed had not divorced.

In December 2003, Tommie brought an action to annul her marriage to Ahmed.

In January 2004, Brown filed an action to annul his marriage to Tommie.  Brown argued that he was entitled to annulment because Tommie had never divorced her first husband, so Brown and Tommie’s marriage was void ab initio (invalid from the beginning).

A hearing was held in Tommie’s annulment action against Ahmed in April 2004.  An order was entered the same day granting the request for annulment.  Ahmed did not appear.

In May 2004 Brown amended his complaint against Tommie, alleged that S.C. Code Ann § 20-1-80 (providing a marriage contracted while a party has a living spouse is void ab initio unless one of several exceptions applies) prohibited Tommie from marrying Brown while she was still married to Ahmed.  Tommie counter petitioned for divorce.  Ultimately, both Brown and Tommie withdrew and dismissed their actions, and the two had an on-and-off relationship until Brown passed away in December 2006.

After Brown’s death, inheritance litigation began.  Tommie sought an elective share or omitted spouse’s share of Brown’s estate, among other claims.  The circuit court found that:

  • Tommie was the surviving spouse of Brown;
  • Tommie’s first marriage to Ahmed was void ab initio due to Ahmed’s bigamy;
  • Tommie had no legal impediment to her marriage with Brown in 2001;
  • Tommie and Brown’s marriage was valid;
  • Tommie and Brown’s marriage was not annulled, and they had not divorced prior to Brown’s death.

The order was appealed by some of Brown’s children.  The court of appeals, holding that the findings of fact underlying the 2004 annulment order were binding on the children, further held that Tommie’s second recorded marriage (to Brown) could not be bigamous because her first recorded marriage (to Ahmed) was never valid, since Ahmed had at least three wives in Pakistan when he married Tammie.

The court of appeals held that the rule that an annulment order cannot retroactively validate a bigamous marriage – is limited to situations where the first marriage is merely voidable, not void, as voidable marriages are valid until one of the parties elects to end the marriage, but a bigamous marriage is never valid.

Annulment Actions Are In Rem Actions In South Carolina

“In rem actions generally are instituted to determine the status of property and the rights of individuals with respect thereto.”

An in rem judgment is res judicata as to all the world with regard to the res or status that is determined therein.  However, the Supreme Court of the United States has long recognized that an in rem judgment is not conclusive or binding on nonparties as to the underlying facts upon which the decision is based, even those facts that are essential to its determination:

If a competent court . . . divorces a couple, or establishes a will, . . . the couple is divorced, [and] the will is established as against all the world, whether parties or not, because the sovereign has said that it shall be so. . . . But . . . the judgment, because conclusive on all the world in what we may call its legislative effect, is [not] equally conclusive upon all as an adjudication of the facts upon which it is grounded. On the contrary, those judgments . . . are said to be conclusive evidence of the facts upon which they proceed only against parties who were entitled to be heard before they were rendered. . . . We may lay on one side, then, any argument based on the misleading expression that all the world are parties to a proceeding in rem. This does not mean that all the world are entitled to be heard; and, as strangers in interest are not entitled to be heard, there is no reason why they should be bound by the findings of fact, although bound to admit the title or status which the judgment establishes.” We think that this quotation expresses the correct rule and that it is sustained by the decisions of this court.

Tilt v. Kelsey, 207 U.S. 43, 52-53 (1907) (emphasis added) (citation omitted) (last omission in original).

What Is the Effect Of An Annulment Judgment Under South Carolina Law?

Tommie’s action for an annulment was an action in rem that acts only upon the status of the parties.  The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the petitioners that the in rem annulment order simply determined Respondent was thereafter free to remarry. The underlying factual findings as to her marriage ceremony with Ahmed and, more specifically, Ahmed’s true marital status in 1997, did not bind those who had no opportunity to be heard on the matter.

Therefore:

To the extent the court of appeals held Petitioners were precluded from contesting any findings in the annulment order because Brown did not pursue his own annulment action against Respondent and Petitioners’ rights were derivative from Brown, we find Brown’s actions are not determinative of Petitioners’ rights. The fact that Brown did not pursue his own annulment action is not determinative of his marital status in this estate proceeding to ascertain if Brown has a surviving spouse, as a void marriage may be challenged at any time, even after the death of a spouse.

Does Collateral Estoppel Bar James Brown’s Children’s Challenge To The Factual Findings in The Annulment Order?

The doctrine of collateral estoppel under South Carolina law did not preclude James Brown’s children from examining the underlying factual findings in the annulment order.

“Under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, once a final judgment on the merits has been reached in a prior claim, the relitigation of those issues actually and necessarily litigated and determined in the first suit are precluded as to the parties and their privies in any subsequent action based upon a different claim.” Roberts v. Recovery Bureau, Inc., 316 S.C. 492, 495-96, 450 S.E.2d 616, 619 (Ct. App. 1994) (emphasis added).

The validity of Brown’s and Respondent’s purported marriage was not litigated in Respondent’s annulment action against Ahmed.  The children were not parties to the annulment action, and the issue was effectively decided by default.

The South Carolina Supreme Court determined that James Brown’s children were not bound by the factual findings in the annulment order and were not collaterally estopped from litigating whether Ahmed had the capacity to marry Tommie.

South Carolina Section 20-1-80 Applies At The Time of The Second Marriage

The South Carolina legislature has established detailed procedures regarding the issuance and recordation of marriage licenses and certificates in South Carolina to maintain the accuracy and accessibility of information affecting the public interest.

Section 20-1-80, entitled “Bigamous marriage shall be void; exceptions,” states:

All marriages contracted while either of the parties has a former wife or husband living shall be void. But this section shall not extend [1] to a person whose husband or wife shall be absent for the space of five years, the one not knowing the other to be living during that time, [2] not to any person who shall be divorced[,] or [3] [to any person] whose first marriage shall be declared void by the sentence of a competent court.

Here, James Brown’s children argued that the third exception contained in South Carolina statute section 20-1-80, the party’s first marriage has been declared void by a competent court, required Tommie to obtain a court order declaring her first recorded marriage void before entering into a second marriage.

We noted that, “[i]n construing a statute, we need not resort to rules of construction where the statute’s language is plain.” Lukich, 379 S.C. at 592, 666 S.E.2d at 907.

As we explained in Lukich, the statute looks to only a single point in time, the date of contracting the subsequent marriage, and it does not contemplate either a prospective or retroactive perspective:

The statute speaks to the status quo at the time the marriage was contracted, and does not contemplate either a prospective or a retroactive perspective. Any other construction of § 20-1-80 would lead to uncertainty and chaos.

The South Carolina Supreme Court further stated:

We agree with Respondent that most bigamous marriages are void ab initio by law as a matter of public policy. 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. As we stated in Lukich, it is the status of the parties at the  time of contracting the subsequent union, without the official resolution of a prior union, that the statute prohibits in order to protect societal interests. Cf. Carnie v. Carnie, 252 S.C. 471, 477, 167 S.E.2d 297, 300 (1969) (observing “the well established proposition that the state itself is a silent party to all divorce proceedings and that it is the duty of the court to protect the interest of the state therein”).

A Bigamous Marriage Is Void Ab Initio And Cannot Be Revived By An Annulment Order

A bigamous marriage is void ab initio.  Therefore, there is nothing to be revived by an annulment order of the first marriage entered after the second, bigamous marriage.

The South Carolina Supreme Court stated:

In the current appeal, because it is undisputed that, at the time Respondent contracted marriage with Brown in 2001, she had not resolved her first recorded marriage (to Ahmed), her marriage to Brown was void ab initio and “there was nothing to be ‘revived’ by the annulment order” Respondent obtained in 2004.

Therefore, Tommie was not the surviving spouse of James Brown.  The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals and remanded to the circuit court to promptly proceed with the probate of Brown’s estate in accordance with his estate plan.  For more, see the Hollywood Reporter’s take on this “unusual” court decision.