Anna Nicole Smith was both famous and infamous. Not only was she know for being a playboy bunny, she was also know for her marriage to much (much) older millionaire J. Howard Marshall II, and the estate battle that ensued following his death. The fight began in the mid 90's, continued until 2007 when Anna Nicole abruptly died in 2007, and then kept going for 8 more years. Only this month (July 2015) did the court make a ruling that might bring a final end to this Estate litigation drama. And boy, was it a drama. Hundreds of millions of dollars were won in court, hundreds of millions were lost, two parties died, and important new case precedent was set.
After nearly 20 years of fighting, over a million dollars paid in attorneys fees, and literally killing both the plaintiff and the defendant, was anything gained? From information available to the public, it appears that the only ones who made out well from this case were the attorneys. And perhaps the judicial system - which was able to set more firm laws regarding cases handled in multiple states and multiple courts.
Now, most estate litigation cases take place in only one state, within the probate court system (as opposed to the Criminal Court or the Federal Court). Anna Nicole's case, however, moved between both California and Texas, from Federal court to Probate court, back to Federal court, then to the Supreme Court, to the 9th circuit court, and then back to Texas probate court. Forbes' article, link below, outlined a timeline which I have simplified for you here. The timeline in no way does justice to the myriad of complications and legal intricacies of the nearly two decade long case, but it's a good start to get an idea of the litigation craziness.
- Jan, '96: Anna Nicole Smith files for bankruptcy. Pierce (her former step son) files a defamation claim against her "lie" that Pierce had schemed to take her part of the estate. Anna Nicole files counterclaim seeking one half of her former husband's estate.
- Dec., '99: Pierce’s defamation claim is rejected by the bankruptcy court and a judgement is entered for Ms. Smith for $475 million.
- Jan., '00: Pierce and Elaine Marshall file suit seeking damages against Anna Nicole for filing a "frivolous lawsuit" that challenged Mr. Marshall's will in a Texas probate court.
- Jan. '01: Texas jury trial in probate court ensues, during which Anna Nicole drops her Texas suit.
- June '01: A California Federal court reviews Anna's bankruptcy court award of $475 million and rules it needs more evidence to uphold it.
- Dec., '01: Texas probate court orders Anna Nicole to pay $741,000 in legal expenses. Pierce argues CA should dismiss Anna Nicole's claims there because they are precluded by the jury finding in Texas.
- March '02: Bankruptcy award modified by CA Federal court but finds her eligible to receive $44.3 million in sanctions for the “egregious” actions of Pierce’s lawyers.
- Dec.'04: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals says Anna Nicole’s counterclaim in bankruptcy was “simply a disguised attack” on the Marshall estate, and repeals CA's ruling. They also decide the Texas probate court had exclusive jurisdiction in the matter.
- May '06: Ninth Circuit's decision reversed by U.S. Supreme Court, stating that the probate court (here in Texas) does not have exclusive jurisdiction over each and every area of the litigation.
- June '06: Pierce Marshall dies.
- Feb. '07: Anna Nicole Smith dies.
- March '10: Ninth Circuit rules that because Texas probate court was the first to rule on the validity of J. Howard Marshall II’s will, the Texas probate court's decision had preclusive effect.
- June '11: Precedent setting ruling made by U.S. Supreme Court's Chief Justice John Roberts which holds that the bankruptcy court had "exceeded its powers under Article III of the Constitution by entering a judgment on a counterclaim based on state law in Texas that wasn’t core to the reorganization proceedings."
2013 Judge David Carter "leaning toward ordering $40 million in sanctions" against the estate of Pierce for bad conduct, egregious lawyer behvior
2014, Carter reverses himself, stating that Anna's lawyers failed to provide sufficient evidence of actual damages for him to award sanctions.
And finally, we come to the decision of July 2015 - the Texas probate court throws out sanctions against Anna Nicole Smith's estate and modifies sections of prior court rulings. The case is ripe for law school fodder, and is potentially left open to more litigation.
As a Trust and Estate lawyer in Contra Costa County and the East Bay, I am constantly working with family members to resolve disputes around estate matters. It is often the case that trust or will litigation cases can be settled out of court, and attorney's fees can be kept reasonable. When clients and attorneys work together, more money can be kept by family members, and the stress of dealing with a loved one's trust or estate can be minimized.
The question I often pose to my clients when the outcome is uncertain: Is it worth the money, stress, and time for you to engage in a lengthy legal battle? For Anna Nicole Smith and Pierce Marshall - it almost looks like the stress of it killed both of them.
If you have questions about a trust, will, or probate matter and live in Contra Costa or Alameda County, I offer a free 30 minute consultation and am happy to help. Contact me today.