Dead but Not Gone
In any estates practice one is likely to see more than a few battles motivated by emotion rather than money. Take, for example, the not so unusual scenario of a younger woman who marries an older man and claims against his estate on his death. The son from a previous marriage, being the major beneficiary of the contested Will, vehemently denies the claim and a bitter dispute ensues. Not uncommon for such disputes to go on for years. In one US case, however, the dispute has outlived the husband, the wife and the son, leaving only the estates to battle it out after 15 years of litigation that saw its way into a Houston Probate Court, a Los Angeles Bankruptcy Court, a variety of appeal courts and even the US Supreme Court.
This, of course, is the Anna Nicole Smith (legal name Vickie Lynn Marshall) battle over her elderly husband’s $1.6 billion estate. Smith, a former stripper, and J. Howard Marshall, an oil tycoon, married in 1994 when she was a 26 and he was 89. Marshall died 14 months later. In a Will that was re-done after his marriage to Smith, the elder Marshall left almost his entire estate to his son E. Pierce Marshall.
Smith contested the Will in Probate Court in Texas at the same time as an appeal from her bankruptcy proceedings was pending in Federal Court in California. As part of a counterclaim in the bankruptcy proceedings, Smith was awarded millions against Pierce for tortious interference with a substantial inter vivos gift (worth $300 Million) that she claimed her husband intended to give to her.
In the latest decision released on Friday, March 19, 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Probate Court’s decision that the billionaire was mentally competent and under no undue influence when he left nothing to Smith, was the earliest final judgment on matters relevant to the tort proceeding, which precluded the award of damages by the Federal Court. For more on the background of this case see this 2007 blog.
Pierce Marshall passsed away in 2008. His wife, Elaine Marshall, continues the battle on behalf of his estate with Smith’s ex-boyfriend, Larry Birkhead, and attorney, Howard K. Stern, in charge of Smith’s estate. Birkhead and Smith’s 3-year-old daughter, Dannielynn, was named Smith’s heir in 2008 after she died of a drug overdose at age 39 in a Florida hotel.
Whether emotion will continue to fuel the litigation remains to be seen but this article in the Washington Post seems to indicate that it is not over yet, with another trip to the US Supreme Court possible in the future.
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Sharon Davis – Click here for more information on Sharon Davis.