The Never-Ending Litigation – Anna Nicole Smith Court Case Still Going On
In 1994 Anna Nicole Smith, a 26- year- old model, married J. Howard Marshall, II, an 89-year-old oil tycoon. He died 14 months later, leaving a trust, a will, billions of dollars, and some very unhappy people.
The fight over his estate continues to this day.
The disputes have meandered through multiple federal and state courts and twice landed in the United States Supreme Court. The contestants have included Marshall’s oldest son Pierce, his younger son Marshall III, and his widow Anna Nicole, aka Vickie Lynn Marshall. Along the way Pierce and Anna Nicole died. In January, 2017, the Texas probate judge who had presided over Marshall’s probate estate finally recused himself, saying “I don’t want to deal with you people anymore. This is ridiculous.”
It is possible to glean a few nuggets of universal wisdom out of the hundreds of pages of pleadings, court opinions, and public commentary. These are applicable to anyone blessed with relatives, or money, or both.
Estate planning works. In 1982 Marshall put most of his assets into a Living Trust, which he periodically amended. In 1992 he executed a will that left his remaining assets to his trust. In 1994, a few days after his marriage to Anna Nicole, he signed a trust amendment. After a five-month jury trial, the probate court entered a judgment upholding the validity of his documents.
Never bet against a Texas probate court. While the probate case was pending, Anna Nicole filed for bankruptcy in California. The California bankruptcy and district court ruled in her favor on some of her claims against Pierce Marshall and awarded her over $400 million. Days later, she dropped her claims against Pierce in the Texas probate case. The probate judge warned her “your claim to anything that [J. Howard Marshall II] had at any time in his life is over when this final judgment is signed.” He was right. Ultimately, the conflicting California judgment was tossed out, wiping out her entire damage award.
Death (even your own) doesn’t always end litigation. Pierce Marshall died in 2006. Anna Nicole died in 2007. Neither death ended the litigation, a fact pointed out by Chief Justice Roberts when he paraphrased Dickens “Sadly, the original parties have died out of it…….and still the suit drags its weary length before the Court.”
No one understands the interplay between bankruptcy and probate law. At various times in the Marshall cases the courts addressed the distinction between “core” and “non-core” bankruptcy proceedings, compulsive counterclaims, the principles of federalism, the Full Faith and Credit Act, the evolution of bankruptcy law (beginning before the Bankruptcy Act of 1898), and Article I vs. Article III judges. Not only could they not agree on the answer; they could not even agree on the proper question.