Playmate’s lesson in estate management

James L. Martin Contributor
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The case of Anna Nicole Smith and her late husband J. Howard Marshall II is one of the most notorious probate cases in American history. But after 15 years of litigation, an end is finally in sight. Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling of a Texas probate court which had determined J. Howard Marshall II had not intended to leave any additional inheritance to Anna Nicole Smith, and that he had provided over $6 million in gifts to the playmate during their brief relationship.

This ruling was a legal triumph for the Marshall family, but the Ninth Circuit’s decision also has deeper implications for the way our courts should interpret the rule of law when it comes to estate planning. What’s more, this case underscores the need for all aging Americans to engage in proper estate planning.

At the age of 89, the successful oilman J. Howard Marshall II married Anna Nicole Smith, but the marriage was short-lived as Marshall died just 14 months later.  Though Marshall provided Smith with millions of dollars in gifts during their time together, he made specific plans for his estate that did not include additional inheritance for her. Before Marshall’s death, Smith challenged his will, claiming she was entitled to half of J. Howard’s estate.

After careful investigation into Marshall’s elaborate estate plans, a Texas jury upheld Marshall’s wishes and found Marshall’s son to be the rightful heir. But before the jury could even rule, Smith “forum shopped” and filed a bankruptcy case in California in hopes of finding a venue more open to her legal goals. In spite of the Texas decision, Smith was able to manipulate the court system to her favor – a troubling fact to anyone interested in the sanctity of the legal system. Since then, the case has traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and back to California with the argument over which court has jurisdiction of the matter.

Finally, though, a recent decision by the Ninth Circuit established that the Texas probate court was the clear trial of record for the case and that probate courts have jurisdiction over estate matters.  Had the Ninth Circuit ruled in Smith’s favor, it would have set a dangerous precedent, allowing for disgruntled relatives to abuse our judicial system in an effort to obtain what is not legally theirs, and potentially dragging estate battles out for years against the wishes of the rightful heirs.

This case also demonstrates the strength and necessity of estate planning. Marshall took the proper steps to ensure his family was provided for after his death. These plans have thus held up in several courts and endured over a decade of litigation abuse. Without a proper will and estate plan, Marshall’s estate would have been even more vulnerable to looting.

While this never-ending legal saga has made for some good entertainment, it has also underscored the very important need to be diligent about estate management. All aging Americans need to ensure we have legally safeguarded our assets for our families.  It is imperative that we each take the steps necessary to make sure our assets aren’t vulnerable to such unsavory legal strategies as we have witnessed in this real life drama.

James L. Martin is chairman of the 60 Plus Association, a non-partisan seniors’ advocacy group with a free-enterprise, less-government and lower-taxes approach to seniors’ issues.  www.60plus.org.