It all started when a 26-year old stripper married an 89-year-old Texas oil tycoon. Yes, we're talking about the infamous Anna Nicole Smith and her one-time “true love” J. Howard Marshall.
Media outlets around the country reported last week that the resulting estate feud — which ranks as perhaps the most complex and long-standing estate feud ever — is finally over. But can the famous (or perhaps infamous) battle between Anna Nicole's estate and the estate of her late “stepson” — dueling for Marshall's $1.6 billion fortune — ever really be finished? Not so fast!
It's true that, as reported, after 19 years of litigation, a new ruling was issued last week by a U.S. District Court judge in California. This ruling has apparently ended the federal court proceedings, started when Anna Nicole filed for bankruptcy in 1996.
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That bankruptcy led to a $475 million judgment in Anna Nicole's favor against Pierce Marshall (her much older stepson) … but only temporarily. The judgment was first reduced to $88 million on appeal, and then appealed again, making it up to the U.S. Supreme Court twice (which is very rare). After the second Supreme Court opinion rejected the claims of Anna Nicole, it appeared that Anna Nicole's case was finally at an end.
Then, in May 2013, a U.S. District Court in California issued a new ruling in favor of Anna Nicole's estate and against Pierce Marshall's estate. This new ruling granted Anna Nicole's motion asking for significant sanctions (in an amount to be determined) against Pierce's estate and in favor of team Anna Nicole. The ruling was based on extensive unethical conduct, such as destroying and hiding evidence, intentionally causing delays, and falsifying documents. The ruling also went against the elder Marshall's estate planning lawyer (who, as the court opinion noted, referred to Anna Nicole as “Miss Cleavage”).
But that new ruling was then put on hold because the California judge became unsure what to do. On one hand, he was obligated to honor a previous Texas court's ruling in Pierce's favor, which found that J. Howard Marshall's final estate plan was valid and that Anna Nicole wasn't promised half the estate, as she at one time claimed.
Additionally, the judge was bothered by the difficulties that the lengthy delays created for both sides (especially since both Pierce Marshall and Anna Nicole had died in the interim). Based on that, the Judge questioned how he could ever decide a specific amount of sanctions that could be awarded.
On the other hand, the California judge weighed his beliefs and prior findings that Pierce committed significant wrongdoing during the California proceedings and that this had prejudiced Anna Nicole's case. Because of this conflict, the case sat in limbo, for more than a year, until last week.
IS IT REALLY OVER
The California judge issued a new ruling and reversed his prior decision. He dismissed the sanctions request against Pierce's estate. He felt there was no other choice, due to the Texas probate court ruling, along with the impossibility of assessing sanctions based on actions that took place many years ago, by someone who was no longer alive to defend himself. The judge, citing the second Supreme Court decision in the case, noted that, “The American taxpayer has supported the burden of this litigation for many years, and it is time for this suit to no longer 'drag its weary length before the Court.'”
The Marshall family then issued a press release proclaiming that the 19-year battle was finally done. So why are we now questioning whether the estate fight is really over?
Contrary to popular belief, and the Marshall family press release, the battle rages on. This new court decision ended the federal court proceedings in California, but Anna Nicole Smith's estate still had the right to appeal the Texas probate court ruling from 2001. Anna Nicole's lawyers filed the appeal back years ago, but it was put on hold in 2002, because of the California bankruptcy process, which was only finalized earlier this year.
The Texas appellate court revived the appeal several months ago. Recently, attorneys for Anna Nicole Smith's Estate filed a detailed brief asking the Court of Appeals to reverse the Texas probate verdict. If successful, this would potentially allow the California ruling in Anna Nicole's favor to be reinstated. This new set of appellate arguments attacks the validity of the Texas probate court's ruling, raising various procedural problems with the judgment in Pierce's favor from Texas.
If that appeal succeeds — turning largely on Texas procedural law — then the entire basis by which the Supreme Court ruled against Anna Nicole would be thrown out the window, potentially. It could mean that the original California ruling should take precedence, which may cause the $88 million judgment in favor of Anna Nicole Smith's estate to be reinstated.
Complicated? You bet. Almost over? Not even close. After 19 years, the battling still has another two to three years left, if not longer.
If this isn't a lesson for 89-year olds to stay out of strip clubs, then we don't know what is.
It's also a lesson in how costly probate litigation feuds can become. While 19+ year-long battles don't usually happen (except, perhaps, when more than a billion dollars is on the line), even modest estates can face estate battles that last a year or two, plus the possibility of appeals. It happens much more often in our country than most people realize, and not just to estates of the rich and famous.
WHO ENDS UP WITH THE ESTATE?
While nothing can absolutely prevent an estate fight from happening among your loved ones, the best thing you can do to minimize the chances is thorough estate planning with a good attorney, experienced in drafting wills and trusts.
Pierce Marshall convinced his father to sign new estate planning documents, with the help of his father's estate planning attorney, who has been accused of serious fraud multiple times. If J. Howard Marshall had employed a different estate planning attorney, then this feud may have been avoided — and the oil tycoon's true wishes (whatever they may have been) could have been honored without years and years of expensive litigation.
So who winds up with the $1.6 billion estate? As it currently stands, Pierce Marshall's heirs are set to walk away with everything — unless the Texas appeal filed by Anna Nicole's estate prevails. If it does, that would potentially put Anna Nicole's daughter, Dannielynn, in line to inherit tens of millions of dollars … depending on how many unpaid legal bills are out there.
Coincidentally, the Celebrity Legacies series on the Reelz cable channel is airing an episode this week exploring Anna Nicole Smith's estate in detail.
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!" and attorneys with Barron Rosenberg Mayoras & Mayoras PC. Click here to subscribe to their e-newsletter, The Trial & Heirs Update and learn more about their book. You can reach them at [email protected].