Husband and wife probate attorney team, Andrew and Danielle Mayores, recently published a new book on famous estates, cleverly titled “Trial and Heirs.” The book reviews estate cases of celebrities like Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, and Ray Charles. In addition to pure entertainment value, the book is supposed to educate readers about estate planning from cautionary tales of the rich and famous. The authors give advice on various strategies such as when to update a will and how to set up a living trust. The book, however, fails to adequately portray all the facts regarding the estate of J. Howard Marshall II, the late husband of Anna Nicole Smith. Marshall took all the necessary legal steps to protect his assets and further his testimonial intentions. He never intended to leave Smith a portion of his estate, and instead, provided her with over $8 million dollars in gifts during their brief marriage. Smith claimed to a Texas probate court she was owed a sizable portion of the estate based on a verbal promise from J. Howard.
While the issue was pending in Texas, Smith filed another unrelated bankruptcy claim in a California court. Smith’s attorneys engaged in a practice known as forum shopping whereby lawyers file suits in particular courts to enhance their chances of winning based on the past actions of that court. So while the bankruptcy and federal courts ruled on limited technical aspects, the Texas probate court held a five and a half month jury trial and, to date, is the only court to examine the true merits of this case which has lasted 14 years and traveled from Texas to California to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even after the deaths of both Anna Nicole and Marshall’s son, this case continues to drag on and is now pending a final decision in the 9th circuit.
This case may not provide any novel advice for estate planning, but it does show how to successfully manipulate the judicial system. If the 9th Circuit rules in favor of Smith’s estate, a dangerous legal precedent could be set. It would mean that despite careful planning and specific instructions almost any estate plan could be overruled by simply forum shopping. Estate plans would be threatened through creative attacks using bankruptcy or specialty courts. In order to ensure future estate plans are upheld, it is imperative the Texas probate decision be respected by sister courts. Lady Justice and her heirs are on the same page, however, she laments the intentions of interlopers wanting to feast on a slice of estate pie not on their menu!