The "Anna Nicole Smith Case" Drags On

How bad do you think a probate case has to get before the judge says, “I beg you to recuse me. I don't want to deal with you people anymore.”? The answer is pretty bad.

Texas Probate Judge Mike Wood has been presiding over the lawsuit filed when Anna Nicole Smith’s husband, J. Howard Marshall II died in 1995 for decades, but he has now thrown up his hands a removed himself from the case.

The Bitter Fight

J. Howard Marshall II made millions investing in Koch Industries, but his death would have been but a blip on the radar screen if he hadn’t married 26 year old Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith at the age of 89 after meeting her in a strip club. Marshall died 13 months after his wedding to Smith, and she sought to claim half of her husband’s $1.6 billion estate. E. Pierce Marshall, Marshall’s younger son, objected.

Smith was not mentioned in Marshall’s estate plan, and neither was Marshall’s older son, J. Howard Marshall III, so the two of them teamed up against E. Pierce Marshall in court. In 2001, Judge Wood decided to honor Marshall’s estate plan and give virtually everything to E. Pierce Marshall.

Smith and J. Howard Marshall III appealed and counter-sued. While the Marshall estate lawsuit was playing out in Texas, Smith filed bankruptcy in California. The two courts ended up fighting with one another and that dispute went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court twice.

In 2005, E. Pierce Marshall died suddenly at the age of 67 from an aggressive infection, and his widow, Elaine T. Marshall, took up the fight on his behalf.

In 2007, Smith died of a drug overdose, and her longtime boyfriend and estate administrator, Howard K. Stern, took up the case on her behalf. Smith’s heir was her infant daughter, Dannielynn Hope Marshall Stern, who paternity tests proved was the daughter of Smith and photographer Larry Birkhead.

When the Marshall estate case went to the U.S. Supreme Court the second time, in 2010, the court ruled that the case belonged in Texas, which ended the Smith estate’s involvement in the case.

Six years later there are still three lawsuits over J. Howard Marshall II’s estate pending in Judge Wood’s court, all involving members of the Marshall family suing one another. The endless, bitter fighting has lead Judge Wood to recuse himself from the case.

Lessons Learned

If there is anything to be learned from this case it is that e need to be updated as family circumstances change.

Perhaps J. Howard Marshall II didn’t want to leave anything to his elder son or to Anna Nicole Smith. If he didn’t, he should have made that more clear in his estate planning documents, and communicated his intentions to his family and his business advisors.

Millions of dollars will have been wasted fighting over Marshall’s lawsuit, but the greater loss in cases like is the family. Families are never the same after going through a legal war against one another.  

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