estate litigation

Anna Nicole Smith – The 24 Year Case

Even though Anna Nicole Smith (a/k/a Vickie Lynn Marshall), passed away more than ten years ago, her long and hard-fought battle for the inheritance promised to her by her late husband, oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, continues on for the benefit of her estate, and her twelve-year-old daughter Dannielynn.

How It All Started

The case began in 1995, after J. Howard passed away and his son, Pierce Marshall, filed a probate action in a small town in rural Texas. Once she finally became aware of the action, Anna challenged the will and trust, claiming that Pierce Marshall had tortuously interfered with her inheritance by thwarting J. Howard’s intention to provide her with a significant amount of stock as part of his estate plan. While the probate case was pending, Anna was forced to file for bankruptcy in California. Pierce Marshall filed an adversary proceeding against her in the bankruptcy court, and she counter-claimed against him, asserting her cause of action for tortious interference with an expectancy.

Race to Judgment

While the California bankruptcy case was pending, the Texas probate court action proceeded as well. Eventually, the probate court issued a judgment finding for Pierce Marshall and against Anna. Meanwhile, the bankruptcy court ruled the opposite – awarding Anna $474 million dollars against Pierce. Appeals were filed by Anna of the Texas judgment and by Pierce of the California judgment.

Conflicting Appeals

While various legal arguments were pursued in the appeal of the bankruptcy matter, and the case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court – twice! – the appeal of the Texas probate matter was stayed by the filing of yet another bankruptcy proceeding, this time by J. Howard’s older son, J. Howard Marshall III.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, because the Texas probate judgment was finalized a couple of days before the California bankruptcy judgment, it had “preclusive effect” and invalidated the California judgment.

In 2014, J. Howard Marshall III’s bankruptcy finally concluded, the stay was lifted and the appeal of the probate judgment was considered by the Texas Court of Appeals. That court confirmed the probate judgment in Pierce’s favor, but made some modifications to the judgment.

On January 13, 2017, based on the fact that the Texas court modified the probate court judgment, Howard Stern, the executor of Anna’s estate, filed a motion seeking relief from the judgment in the California court. Because the probate judgment was modified, it was not actually “final” back in 2001 when the bankruptcy court judgment was handed down. Therefore, the bankruptcy judgment should be reinstated, and Anna’s estate should receive the $474 million that it had been awarded seventeen years ago.

The parties filed opposing briefs in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals with oral arguments scheduled for December 3, 2018. The Court of Appeal ruled in January of 2019 that “none of the foregoing impacts our prior issue-preclusion analysis, and we see no reason to disturb our prior judgment.” The case was affirmed on the appeal.