With an inheritance worth hundreds of millions of dollars, numerous ongoing contentious legal battles, and an out-dated last will and testament, the untimely passing of Anna Nicole Smith may be the most complicated and litigious celebrity death ever. However, the confusion and uncertainty surrounding her estate and custody of her infant daughter, Dannielynn, may prove the fiercest battle yet, all of which could have been avoided by following a few basic estate planning tips.
Anna Nicole's Assets
Much of the interest in Anna Nicole Smith's legal battles is attributed to the size of her estate. Smith won a $474 million settlement that was later reduced to $90 million from her recent probate battle against the family of her deceased billionaire husband, J. Howard Marshall. Although this settlement is still being contested, Smith's heir would inherit this fortune. But the issue of who exactly is heir to this potential fortune is open to legal debate.
Smith's Last Will
Within the past few days, Smith's last will and testament has surfaced. However, instead of resolving issues, it has created more questions. The former Playboy playmate's 17-page will, created in California, provided for her attorney and recent romantic partner, Howard K. Stern, to serve as executor. It states that her entire estate should be held in trust by Stern for her son Daniel, who died in September of 2006. With his death, the next person in line to inherit her estate is unclear. Smith's will makes no specific financial allotments for either her newborn daughter or for Stern, whom she joined in a commitment ceremony in the Bahamas three days after Daniel's death.
Adding to the confusion, Smith's will contradicts itself. In one section, it includes a curious provision which appears to specifically disinherit future spouses and children, which would include Dannielynn:
"I have intentionally omitted to provide for my spouse and other heirs, including future spouses and children and other descendants now living and those hereafter born or adopted," Smith wrote in her will.
However, in other sections, it specifically instructs the executor of Smith's will to manage the estate to provide for her "children." This language would appear to provide a portion of the estate for the care of Dannielynn.
Smith's Infant Daughter and Her Legal Team
Despite the confusion caused by the will, most legal experts agree that the likely beneficiary of Smith's estate will be her baby daughter. However, the road to administering the estate probably won't be easy. In her favor, Dannielynn and her team of attorney's have two strong arguments: (1) Her mother, Anna Nicole, did not mean to disinherit her; and even if she did disinherit Dannielynn, (2) the will is invalid.
An Unintended Disinheritance
According to many U.S. state probate laws, if a parent leaves a child out of a will, or disinherits a child, the child can contest the will and potentially get a portion of the estate. Dannielynn's legal team will have to show that the disinheritance was unintentional, or that the language of the will is so unclear that it is impossible to say with any certainty that Anna Nicole disinherited her intentionally.
A Question of Validity
Dannielynn's attorneys' strongest argument will be that the will is invalid. As it stands, the will cannot be enforced according to Anna Nicole's wishes. Her will leaves all of her estate to her son--a person who is not alive, and who did not have any children to survive him. Therefore, Dannielynn's attorneys will likely argue, the will is no longer valid.
If a judge agrees, Smith's estate could be treated as though she never had a will at all. Instead, the courts would administer the estate through intestacy statutes -- the state rules on inheritance which pass along an estate to a deceased's next of kin. In Anna Nicole's circumstances, since she was not married, her next of kin is Dannielynn.
Bottom Line: If either or both arguments are held up in court, Dannielynn would receive all of Anna Nicole's estate. It would make her one very wealthy baby.
Guardianship = Money
What of Anna Nicole's companion, Howard K. Stern? What would he argue and what does he stand to benefit from any contest of the will? We'll take this part of the puzzle in steps. First, he cannot argue to be a beneficiary of the will as her husband because he never officially married her. The commitment ceremony is not likely to be held to be valid under Bahamian law. Without that recognition, Howard cannot claim that it is valid under U.S. law.
However, Stern could contest the will on behalf of Dannielynn since he is taking care of her and has actual physical custody of the child currently. He will probably argue that Dannielynn was meant to receive money under the will, even though it doesn't specifically mention her by name. In addition, because the will names him as the executor of the trust for Anna's children, Stern can argue, he is responsible for managing the trust for Dannielynn's benefit until she turns eighteen. What that translates into is actual dollars for him as he will get a stipend as executor of the trust. But it could be even more lucrative should he be appointed legal guardian in the end because he will presumably have to care for her in the manner that Anna would want, including her lavish and luxurious lifestyle.
Smith's Mother Joins the Fray
Adding still more confusion, Anna Nicole Smith's estranged mother, Virgie Arthur, is also contesting the will. It appears her interest is to invalidate the will to claim custody of Dannielynn. With custody of the child, she would receive a small stipend to rear Anna Nicole's young daughter.
Lessons to Learn
Regardless of the size of Smith's fortune, the confusion surrounding her estate and her last will could have been avoided by following a few simple estate planning guidelines:
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