Federal Appeals Court Rules Against Estate Of Pinup Anna Nicole Smith, "Widow" Of Elderly Texas Billionaire

One of the longest-running estate and trust battles on record added another chapter with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' recent ruling in the saga involving Anna Nicole Smith, now deceased, and her estate's attempt to claim a chunk of her former husband's billion-dollar fortune.  Specifically,  Anna Nicole, stripper-turned-Playboy model-turned-pop-celebrity, married elderly oil magnate J. Howard Marshall in the last year of his life.  She later claimed that Marshall promised her over $300 million although there was apparently no written documentation supporting the gift. 

A msnbc.com article from a couple of days ago summarizes the 15-year legal battle and also contains a link to the 68-page ruling: 

"The convoluted dispute over J. Howard Marshall's money has its roots in a Houston strip club where he met Smith. The two were wed in 1994 when he was 89 and she 26. Marshall died the next year and his will left his estate to his son.

Smith challenged the will in a Houston probate court, alleging the billionaire's son illegally coerced his father to exclude the former Playboy model from sharing the estate. She alleged that her husband promised to leave her more than $300 million above the $7 million in cash and gifts showered on her during their 14-month marriage.

While the probate case was pending in Houston, Smith filed for bankruptcy in Los Angeles, alleging in federal court filings that her husband promised her a large share of the estate.

In late 2000, the bankruptcy court awarded Smith $474.75 million, which a federal district judge reduced to $89.5 million in 2002.

Between those two decisions, a jury in the Houston probate court ruled in March 2001 against Smith. The jury found the billionaire was mentally fit and under no duress when he wrote out a will that left everything to his son.

Since then, the two sides have been fighting over which court to obey.

Smith argued that the federal courts were in charge because the bankruptcy court was the first to rule.

Pierce Marshall countered the decision was the jurisdiction of the probate court, because that's where the first legal action was filed and the site of the only full-blown trial."

Ultimately the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the estate of Marshall's son (who died in 2006) and against the estate of Anna Nicole (you will recall that she died of an apparent drug overdose at age 39 in 2007).  Specifically, the Court held that the bankruptcy court did not have authority to decide a probate dispute such that its $475.75 million award was a mere advisory opinion.  The Court also concluded that the lower court should have relied upon the probate jury's verdict against Anna Nicole and dismissed the entire case rather than merely reducing the award to almost $90 million. 

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Arkansas Court Of Appeals Rejects Cousin's Attempt To Set Aside Gifts To The Decedent's "Yardman"

One common thread running throughout this blog since its inception has been the issue of competency, i.e., the ability of a person to make informed decisions.  Conflicts often arise when ill or elderly people are claimed to have made signficant decisions regarding disposition of their property shortly before they died---sometimes the decision will be legitimate, the culmination of some long, thought-out plan that just never was memorialized on paper until shortly before their death---whereas sometimes the "decision" will be illegitimate, the product of undue influence or overreaching by a dishonest relative, family friend, or advisor.  Whatever the facts and circumstances, it can be difficult to prove that the person did not have competency to make the decision that they purportedly made.  A recent Arkansas Court of Appeals decision demonstrates that the outcome of these disputes usually boils down to the specific evidence that was presented to the trial court, and ultimately what evidence that the trial court found to be the most credible. 

For example, on March 3, 2010, the Court of Appeals ruled in the case of Deslauriers v. Marilyn Irene Deslauriers Revocable Trust, 2010 Ark.App. 211.  An appeal from Lonoke County Circuit Court, the appellant (Killeen) attempted to invalidate certain documents (quitclaim deed, revocable trust, will, etc.) executed by her cousin, the deceased, during and after her 2005 stay in a hospital due to a stroke.  As a result of those documents, the appellee (Richard, the deceased's "yardman") received the bulk of the cousin's estate.  Killeen filed suit after the cousin's death to contest the validity of the documents in question, contending that the cousin was not competent to execute them due to her medical condition. 

Under Arkansas law, the party contesting the validity of a will generally has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence ("more likely than not"), (1) that the decedent lacked mental capacity at the time the will was executed or (2) that the decedent was acting under undue influence.  The Deslauriers Court affirmed the trial court's ruling that the cousin attempting to set aside the documents did not satisfy that burden. 

Killeen presented the testimony of multiple doctors who had treated the deceased around the time of her execution of the documents, and they all testified  that she suffered from dementia and would purportedly be incompetent to sign the documents (though they were admittedly not in attendance at the signing).  Medical records also demonstrated a range of impairment (from mild to severe) at different times during the relevant time period.  Killeen likewise presented the testimony of two non-medical witnesses, one of whom contended that  the deceased was mentally incompetent (in their experience) and both of whom testified that the deceased intended to keep her property "in the family."

Richard presented the testimony of the lawyer whom the cousin used to prepare the documents in question, and he testified that he was very careful to determine whether his client was legally competent to execute the documents.  The attorney also testified that he had been hired to prepare a power of attorney so that Killeen and Richard could be placed in charge of the deceased's business affairs, and that Killeen herself believed the deceased to be an odd person but very competent.  Two other witnesses also testified, in a manner favoring Richard's position, to the extent that they were disinterested employees working at the hospital where the deceased was treated and they observed her as competent when they witnessed her signing of the will.   Richard also offered other evidence in the form of the attorney testifying that he met with the deceased several times after her initial execution of the documents, and in the  form of a doctor who treated the deceased remarking that he was impressed how mentally capable (though not physically capable) she remained after her stroke.

In sum, the trial court concluded that the cousin did not prove incompetency and that the deceased was sufficiently competent at the time that she executed the documents.  The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that while proof of medical condition around the time of the execution of the documents is relevant and important, ultimately the medical condition at the time of execution is paramount.  The Court seemed to attach particular significance to the testimony of the witnesses who were actually in the room when the decedent signed the documents in question.  Observing that it is possible for a testator to execute a document during a "lucid interval" in a period where they may otherwise be incompetent as a general matter, the case generally demonstrates the difficulty that a party can have in attempting to prove a testator's   incompetency. 

Court Rules Testator Was Not Under Insane Delusions When He Revoked His Will

It has been estimated that well over 1/2 of all Americans do not have a will.  I personally know many attorneys that do not even have a will, even though virtually every Arkansas lawyer passed a bar examination covering wills and trusts and more than likely also took a decedents' estates class in law school.  Whether because of not wanting to confront the inevitable (death), procrastination, or other factors, drafting a will is simply not high on the list of priorities for a large percentage of people. 

A primary reason why people do have a will, however, is to have direction and control as to whom their property will be distributed after their death.  Dying without a will is called dying "intestate," and the intestacy laws of the State of Arkansas set forth a rather strict statutory scheme detailing how a person's property will be divied up (to children, descendants of children, surviving spouse, parents of the decedent, etc.).  If a person does have a will, but then validly revokes it without ever executing a new one, then that person will "die intestate" as well.

That is what happened in the recent appeal of Heirs of F.D. Goza, Jr., et al. v. Estate of William E. Potts, Deceased, CA 09-235 (February 17, 2010).  Specifically, this was a probate case in which the former in-laws of the decedent, Mr. Potts, were attempting to take their shares as beneficiaries of a 1989 will which, the estate asserted, was revoked sometime between 2002 and Mr. Potts' 2006 death.  The appellants, relatives of Mr. Potts' deceased wife, Ms. Goza, argued that Mr. Potts lacked testamentary capacity and was under insane delusions when he revoked his will.  The trial court disagreed, ruled that Mr. Potts died intestate (meaning that Mr. Potts' property amounting to several hundred thousand dollars went to persons other than the appellants), and the Arkansas Court of Appeals affirmed. 

The facts and circumstances surrounding Mr. Potts' revocation were interesting to say the least, and involved Mr. Potts marking "void" over each paragraph, writing "bastard" and "get nothing" on the will, applying Liquid Paper over the names of the beneficiaries, and later shredding the document in front of witnesses.  There were tales of alleged affairs and "wife stealing," temper tantrums, and other curious claims, but in the end the Court held that "the evidence clearly showed that Bill was an irascible, angry, suspicious, controlling, profane, and difficult man for most of his adult life; however, we cannot say that the trial court erred in refusing to find that he labored under insane delusions."   

The lesson learned from this case is that not only must a testator have the capacity to execute a will (the ability to understand the effects if executed), the testator much also have the same capacity to later revoke that will after it has been executed.  As the Court held, "complete sanity in a medical sense is not essential to testamentary capacity, provided power to think rationally exists."  Given the steep standard for proving lack of capacity by a testator, contesting a will (or, in this case, a will revocation) can be a difficult task in the absence of very persuasive evidence.    

Court Rules Handwritten Note Found By Deceased's Mother Did Not Result In Change Of IRA Beneficiary

As previously discussed on this Blog, a common fact scenario in estate, trust and probate lawsuits involves an eleventh-hour change in a dying person's final wishes regarding their property.  Quite often the last-minute decision appears legitimate, although occasionally there is an aura of suspicious facts and circumstances surrounding the event which arises to the level of an "inheritance theft."  Frequently the change in question is expressed in the form of a handwritten note, and courts are commonly called upon to rule whether or not such "wishes" will actually be  enforced.

On January 27, 2010, the Arkansas Court of Appeals addressed a somewhat similar situation in the case of Nunneman v. Estate of Donald T. Grubbs, et al, Case No. 2010 Ark.App. 75.  Specifically, Mr. Grubbs had named Ms. Nunnenman as beneficiary of his IRA, and a few days before his death evidently called a lawyer to his hospital bed and executed a will, leaving all of his property to his mother, Ms. Grubbs.  She then asked the Court to freeze certain IRA monies contending that she had discovered a 2005 note in Mr. Grubbs' bible which stated:  "My Will.  I Donnie Grubbs want all of my estate All IRA and any SBC Telco and all other assets and worldly goods to go to my Mother Shervena Grubbs.  Being of sound mind.  Donnie Grubbs."  Ms. Grubbs alleged that she had found the note in the presence of a coworker, but that witness claimed that she had not known of the note's existence before the trial. 

After considering the evidence, the trial court ruled that the handwritten note should have the effect of changing the IRA beneficiary.  Ms. Nunnenman appealed and the Arkansas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, ruling that it was clear error to find an effective change of the IRA beneficiary.  Specifically, the Court pointed to the conflicts in the testimony regarding the discovery of the note and also focused upon the fact that the very person who discovered the note was the same person who would end up benefitting from its discovery.  The Court also opined that it was significant that while Mr. Grubbs had undertaken steps to call a lawyer to come to his bedside, he had not taken similar measures to change his IRA beneficiary. 

In sum, this case is a good example of the heavy burden that a party has when attempting to prove a change in property disposition by means of a handwritten document.  As a general matter the Court will need to be presented with a strong showing of evidence before favorably considering such a request. 

Billionaire's Former Lover's Shenanigans Fail In Will Contest

Most estate and trust conflicts for which our law firm is retained, either to represent the fiduciary (executor, trustee, etc.) or the beneficiary to whom the fiduciary duty is owed, involve anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars to several million dollars.  The fact is that the substantial time and expense associated with litigating smaller amounts in dispute can often be cost-prohibitive for the client.  Because the matters that we assist with typically involve family fortunes within the above-described range, wealth wars erupting over $4.2-plus billion are rare indeed.

However, that is precisely what occurred as recently noted in a February 2, 2010 post by the Michigan Probate Law Blog, in the case of Hong Kong tycoon Nina Wang.  Asia's wealthiest woman, she died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 69.  Following her passing, a gentleman named Tony Chan, who also was her former lover and feng shui master, revealed a 2006 will which purported to leave her entire fortune (which has been estimated to possibly range up to $13 billion) to him instead of to charity.  In what might be the mother of all will contests, the Court ruled that the will was a forgery and that the signatures contained on the document were a "highly skilled simulation."  In fact, in a 326-page opinion, the court held that Mr. Chan "lied and withheld relevant information from the court regarding the circumstances leading to the preparation of the document." 

Lost in the fact that Mr. Chan has apparently now been arrested for his shenanigans is the fact that another will of Ms. Wang's actually bequested $10 million to Mr. Chan.  Seems like Mr. Chan could have benefitted from a phrase that we often toss around here in Razorback country, which rings especially true in this case:  "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered."   

UPDATED: Dispute Erupts Over Wealth Of Deceased Billionaire Shopping Mall Developer

Pretty much anyone who has lived in Central Arkansas over the last few decades has been aware of if not actually visited University Mall in Little Rock's midtown area.  While it used to be the hot spot for shopping many moons ago, in more recent years it became better known for its empty stores and the litigation that resulted from disputes over the mall's management.  The mall closed in 2007, demolition began in 2008, and a brand new mixed-use development appears imminent for the property in the next year or two.  

Anyone familiar with University Mall is also undoubtedly aware of its close proximity to Park Plaza Mall.  Ever since moving to Arkansas back in 1992, I never understood why University was built almost literally next door to Park Plaza (built a few years earlier in 1959), yet another enclosed shopping mall.  But I guess that's why I'm a mere lawyer and the folks who make the big bucks are mall magnates like Melvin Simon

Specifically, University Mall was developed by Melvin Simon & Associates, an Indianapolis-based real estate development and management company which later became known as Simon Property Group.  I mention this because Simon Property Group is evidently the largest public U.S. real estate company, and shopping mall development made the company's namesake---Mr. Simon---a very wealthy man.  He and his brother, who also co-founded the company, eventually purchased the Indiana Pacers franchise of the National Basketball Association. 

According to a recent post on the Florida Probate & Trust Litigation Blog,  the Wall Street Journal writes that a wealth war has begun over the terms of Mr. Simon's will.  Apparently, Mr. Simon's wife was only supposed to receive approximately one-third of his fortune and, after some changes were evidently made to his will a few months before his death, she now stands to receive about one-half.  Considering that his wealth has been estimated at $1-2 billion depending upon the fluctuating stock price of his company, even minor changes in his will could amount to a major redistribution of wealth.  Notably, the changes cut out Mr. Simon's three children from his first marriage.  

At least one of those children is now suing Mrs. Simon, their stepmother, contending that she unduly influenced Mr. Simon and persuaded him to change his will to reduce the children's inheritances.  The lawsuit also alleges that Mr. Simon had dementia and needed assistance signing the document, to which Mrs. Simon has now apparently responded that while he did in fact have Parkinson's Disease and needed help with his signature, he voluntarily signed a new will and trust of his own free will.  This will be a wealth war worth watching in the next few months. 

Seemingly sudden changes to wills and trusts shortly before someone dies are one of the most common disputes arising in estate, trust and probate litigation.  As the Baby Boomer generation begins to retire and ultimately pass away, there will no doubt be millions more similar disputes in the decades to come. 

UPDATE:  The following link contains the latest update (as of 2/11/10) from the Wall Street Journal.

Videotaping As Possible Way To Preclude Estate, Trust & Probate Litigation

You may remember a movie from 15 or so years ago called "My Life," starring Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman, in which a terminally ill man films a video for his unborn child to watch after the man passes away after a fight with cancer.  The father essentially wanted the child to know who the father was and what the father had learned in his own life, since he would not be around when the child was growing up. 

While the movie was not focused upon an estate or trust battle, I was still reminded of "My Life" yesterday when reading the December 7, 2009 post on the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog, which had an interesting link to a December 3, 2009 Wall Street Journal article written by Kristen McNamara and entitled "Lights, Camera . . . Last Words."  The article discussed videos as a way of allowing the dying to say a few last words and also possibly prevent legal disputes regarding property division after death.  Here is an excerpt from the Blog and the article itself:

"Some individuals have found a way to breathe life into dry estate-planning documents: They're supplementing them with personal messages via video.

With guidance—and caveats—from attorneys and financial advisers, some elderly and terminally ill individuals, and even some young parents, are picking up video cameras or hiring professional videographers to share their life stories, express hopes for younger generations and explain why they're leaving certain assets to certain family members. * * *

[E]xperts say that while videos can head off disputes, if not carefully executed, they also can backfire. * * *

A video may make sense if you are concerned that an heir will claim you weren't competent when you signed estate-planning documents or were pressured to distribute your assets a certain way, estate-planning attorneys say. Videos in which lucid individuals review their wills with their attorneys and answer questions that demonstrate their understanding of the documents and confirm they weren't coerced into any decisions can be useful in rebuffing challenges, they say. Such videos are typically filmed during a will-signing in an attorney's office and are kept by the attorney, along with the estate-planning documents. * * *

Attorneys generally caution against homemade videos, saying they are more likely to cause problems than those produced in consultation with an attorney. A video filmed by a beneficiary, for example, could give rise to conflict-of-interest questions. And, whether filmed professionally or not, a video in which a person looks ill or uneasy could raise questions about his or her cognitive abilities."

My personal view on this is that---overall---technology is a good thing and if it can be used to help rather than hinder in the course of estate planning, then it should be considered as part of the process.  After all, there is little doubt in the criminal context that many a disputed traffic stop, questioned search and seizure, and controversial police station interrogation could be averted if such proceedings were videotaped to ward off the "he said, she said" nature of these events.  Likewise, it seems that if an individual had a video camera and (vis-a-vis an objective, detached cameraman) proceeded to film a will or trust signing ceremony, held up each page of the document to the camera, interviewed or showed the witnesses and other participants, videotaped the actual signatures and notarizations, and otherwise allowed the individual to talk at length during the proceeding, that this could conceivably preclude many a disputed proceeding involving fraud, undue influence, and the like. 

Avoiding Estate, Trust & Probate Litigation

Since one of my areas of practice is estate, trust & probate litigation, it is obviously not in my economic self-interest to counsel against getting involved in this type of litigation in the first place.  However, first and foremost is a lawyer's duty to his or her client, which while sometimes involves filing or defending a lawsuit can also mean trying to avoid that lawsuit altogether.  After all, Abraham Lincoln once advised:  "Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser---in fees, expenses and waste of time."  That is still generally solid advice, although sometimes the fight just cannot be avoided.

That said, U.S. News published a good little article over the Thanksgiving holiday entitled "8 Tips To Avoid Nasty Estate Surprises" which provides some good pointers for avoiding estate, trust & probate litigation.  In summary:

1.  Pick aa reputable, experienced lawyer who has not performed any work for any of the other beneficiaries.  Basically, you want an attorney who knows what they are doing in this area, who does not have a conflict of interest, and who will be representing your interests (only). 

2.  Pick an administrator who can get along with the family, maybe even a professional fiduciary (like a bank trust department) if no one else could practically fill this role.  This is a biggie---oftentimes when one beneficiary is chosen to act as executor or trustee it can cause consternation with respect to the other beneficiaries. 

3.  Talk about your intentions with family members before any will or trust is drafted, in order to preclude surprises and fights after death and making everyone aware of your plans and desires.  Open, honest communication can go a long way toward heading off battles over the family fortune. 

4.  Consider your state's laws and create trusts if necessary to bypass probate if it is particularly burdensome under applicable state law.  Again, our law firm engages in estate, trust & probate litigation---not estate planning---however we can refer you to some reputable attorneys in this area if needed.

5.  Update the will or trust often so that challenges are less likely.  One of the best ways to avoid litigation is to occasionally update your documents---under facts and circumstances (lots of objective, detached witnesses, etc.) demonstrating the absence of fraud and undue influence from others---so that it can be demonstrated you were polishing your estate and trust objectives up until the end your life.

6.  Be sure to title your assets properly so that the assets pass through or outside of probate as you originally intended.  Too many folks spend a lot of money creating fancy trusts and then never do the relatively simple work of actually transferring assets into the trust. 

7.  Think about including a no-contest clause tied to testamentary gifts of a degree sufficient to discourage legal disputes.  To help avoid post-death disputes it is worth possibly including a penalty clause that essentially poses a risk of losing their piece of the pie for any beneficiary who challenges the instrument  in question after your death. 

8.  Consider allowing some discretion with respect to distribution of assets so that beneficiaries can agree to a distribution that best meets their own needs and desires.  There is no one-size-fits-all strategy and of course none of us have a crystal ball, so sometimes providing for some flexibility is often a good practical solution. 

While not a fool-proof plan to avoid estate, trust & probate litigation, the foregoing reflects some good first steps to staying out of the courts with respect to the family fortune.  As we are in the heart of the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, I extend my best wishes to you with hopes for a fuss-free next few weeks.

Michael Jackson's Father Making Push For Allowance And Say-So In Deceased Son's Estate

At my house we just started giving allowances to our kids so long as they do certain chores around the house, and hopefully the experiment will teach them a number of lessons including personal responsibility, teamwork, the value of hard work, budgeting, saving, etc.  Each of our children will receive one dollar (per year of their age) per week, i.e., our 7 year old will receive $7 per week so long as he does his chores every day (and is docked a buck if he doesn't get them done).  I am hopeful that this will work, but the jury is still out as they have not yet caught on, for example, to the requisite bedmaking every morning.

That allowance, of course, is a mere pittance to the allowance that Michael Jackson's father is claiming from his son's estate.  I wrote about Michael's death a few weeks ago, and sure enough it appears that there are some post-funeral disputes with respect to who will benefit from the assets in his estate.  Specifically, an article today reveals that the gloved one's controversial father, Joe Jackson, recently filed a 60-page motion seeking a $15,000 monthly allowance to help cover his expenses.  Apparently Mr. Jackson's only income other than his son's assistance has been a $1,700 monthly Social Security check.  His alleged monthly expenses evidently include $1,200 for rent for his Las Vegas home (his wife of 50 years lives north of Los Angeles), $2,500 for eating out, $1,000 for entertainment, gifts and vacations; $2,000 for air travel; and $3,000 on hotels.  That actually does not sound too unreasonable considering Vegas prices, separate and distinct from the issue of whether Mr. Jackson should receive a dime to begin with . . .  

Anyway, a judge has ruled that Mr. Jackson can pursue his motion to receive a family allowance from the estate because he claimed his son had long been supporting him, but simultaneously ruled that he will not inherit any of his famous son's assets because he was not named in the will.  Mr. Jackson was deemed not to have standing to pursue his litigation, and therefore also will not be able to challenge the appointment of the executors chosen by the singer to handle the administration of his estate.  There is some indication from the article that an appeal may be forthcoming, but given the well-publicized strained relationship that Michael and Joe Jackson have had in the past it seems unlikely that an appellate court would overrule the trial judge's factual findings as to Michael's intent in drafting his will.

Last Will And Testament Of Entertainer Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson's recent death shocked the world, notwithstanding his controversial and mysterious past.  The famous singer will not soon be forgotten, however, if nothing else because of the money, property, and incredible fortune that he left behind to his heirs.  Word is that he had incurred substantial debt at the time of his death, but royalties alone from his catalogue of music will surely reap many millions of dollars in profits long into the future.  Only time will tell whether any major fights erupt out of the settling of his estate (especially since Michael's father and siblings were apparently not named as beneficiaries), but in case you were curious The Smoking Gun has apparently obtained a copy of Michael's Last Will And Testament.