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 email@example.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.