Anna Nicole Smith was not just your average
blond, ex- Playboy centerfold sexpot.
Smith was undoubtedly beautiful, but perhaps we underestimated her
intellectual ability to testify in the U.S. Supreme Court and win a case of first
impression on whether a bankruptcy court can hear probate issues based on
When Smith married billionaire Howard Marshall II in 1994 she was a single
mother, a self proclaimed stripper and model. She was 26 and he was 89.
This set off a huge and messy will contest between her and his youngest
son Pierce Marshall. Smith would also probably realize that at some point
she would have to prove that this marriage was sincere and would last a
lifetime. For the billionaire it was his last year. But there was testimony that
she was the light of his life and in his last days were his happiest ever.
Smith claimed her marriage was one of mutual love and respect, just like
many others. Under the First Amendment we can choose to associate with
whom we please, even if the relationship to others may not be an idyllic one.
This marriage under Texas law, was subject to the widow’s rights of
inheritance. There seemed to be no coercion, duress or confusion about
Marshall’s love for Smith when he made gifts to her worth $6.6 million, and
promised her half of his estate.
Venue and jurisdiction for inheritance
At issue in the legal battle was competing court jurisdiction over where her
claims against her late billionaire husband’s estate would be decided .
Her husband dies in Texas, and his son, her stepson, probated the will
there. A Texas court held a trial on whether she was entitled to an
inheritance from Marshall, and decided she deserved nothing. Smith then
filed for bankruptcy in the federal court in California, where she tried to
assert as assets her claims against her late husband’s estate and against
her stepson. Smith probably chose the federal forum because she did
not think she would get a fair shake in the Texas state court because
of Howard’s family influence. When she won a partial victory, her stepson
took a series of appeals. At issue was the long-standing “probate matters”
exception to federal jurisdiction, a principal that held that federal courts
would not hear cases involving probate issues. This was a principal based
on custom, not statute or Constitution, and when the case was finally
appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court , the Court ruled that the
California bankruptcy court could in fact hear her claim and that she could
pursue her claim there. Anna Nicole’s moral position was vindicated as well
when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsbug wrote that her stepson, Peirce Marshall,
had “engaged in forgery, fraud and over-reaching to gain control of his father’
s assets.” The case has been remanded and is now pending in the
California federal court.
What is also important to note about this case is that a will contest is always
nasty, however when one side has money to fight as in this case the
outcome can be even be worse. Here both parties had the money to do so.
Now we have no doubt that the battle for legal custody of the baby girl is at
issue, but how much money will she inherit? Smith’s will left everything to
her son Daniel, who we know died tragically as his mother did, but she did
not provide for her little girl. This will lead to even more litigation..
Nicole had a life that, at first, was the envy of many young women. She was
always in the media, some people didn't even know why. Her sometimes
outlandish behavior was part of her attraction as to why we were interested
in watching her.
Her beauty may have been excessive for some, but underneath
it all there was an intelligent, self made woman who knew
exactly what she wanted in life, and has been judged more
harshly than most for doing so.
This article is dedicated to Anna Nicole Smith.
You were a woman who,in my opinion, perhaps didn’t get the respect you
deserved while you were alive. You may have also been totally
misunderstood and misjudged. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, thought
Copyright 2007 Lydia Cotz
|Judged & Misjudged:
Anna Nicole Smith’s Journey
to the U. S. Supreme Court
A Woman Lawyers View
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