The Legal Mess Left Behind by Anna Nicole Smith

The Legal Mess Left Behind by Anna Nicole Smith

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., December 2009

When Anna Nicole Smith died on February 8, she left behind a 5-month-old daughter and a tabloid-worthy trail of legal uncertainties. Her potential inheritance from husband J. Howard Marshall II is still up in the air, as is the paternity and custody of her daughter, Dannielynn Hope Marshall Stern, her purported marriage to lawyer Howard K. Stern, a civil suit brought against her as the spokesperson for TrimSpa, and now, even the ownership of the Bahamas mansion in which she had been living.

Whether or not Smith had a will is still unclear, but if she did, questions would likely arise as to its validity—where and when it was signed, who drew up the will, and who were the witnesses. If Stern wrote the will and/or acted as witness, his beneficiary status could be questioned.

Alternately, if Smith had no will, the laws of her country of residence would apply. But where was that? The United States, where she had lived most of her life, or in the Bahamas where she had been recently been granted permanent resident status based on alleged ownership of a home there—which has since been called into question, most notably by the man who Smith had said gave her the property.

Even the future of Smith's body is still a question mark, as it is currently be preserved by court order until DNA tests can be performed. Smith's mother, Virgie Arthur, with whom Smith had no relationship, has recently vowed to file for rights to Smith's body as her next of kin.

How will this all wrap up? Chances are, not very neatly and not very quickly either.

Let's take the legal issues in turn.

Estate of J. Howard Marshall II

Smith was 26-years-old when she married Texas oil baron J. Howard Marshall II in 1994; he died 14 months later, and since then, Smith, under her real name Vickie Lynn, had been in a battle with Marshall's son Pierce over the $1.6 billion estate. In federal bankruptcy court, Smith secured a $474 million judgment, which was later reduced to $90 million. But the entire award was later overturned on appeal; meanwhile a state probate court also ruled that Smith had no claim to the Marshall fortune.

Smith appealed, though, and in May of 2006, the United States Supreme Court said that Smith could continue fighting for her share, concluding that the federal appeals court had improperly stopped her.

This suit, as it is civil, will continue on despite Smith's death, just as it continued after Pierce's death last year. Whereas in criminal actions, legal proceedings stop when the accused dies, a civil case can continue to its conclusion with the representative of the estate in place of the deceased party. In this instance, the estate of Anna Nicole Smith will become the party of record.

Pierce's lawyers still contend that Smith is entitled to nothing, just as the elder Marshall's will provided.

Paternity and Custody of Dannielynn

Right now, Smith's daughter is reportedly in the Bahamas with Stern, who is listed as the father on the baby's birth certificate. However, Smith's former boyfriend Larry Birkhead has long claimed to be the father of Dannielynn, and in fact, has been requesting a DNA paternity test for months.

Recently, a judge ordered that Smith's body not be buried or cremated until a hearing can be held on the paternity issue. Birkhead's lawyer wants a DNA sample of Smith to be sure that Dannielynn is the baby that is eventually tested in the paternity determination.

Since Smith's death, another man has come forward to assert his potential claim as Dannielynn's father—Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband Prince Frederic Von Anhalt, who claims that he had an ongoing 10-year affair with Smith; he contends that he, and not the other two men, had been with Smith around the time of Dannielynn's conception.

There have also been rumors that Smith had her oil baron husband's sperm frozen before his death, and that she may have actually gotten pregnant through artificial insemination.

Without the biological father a clear issue, it would seem that the baby's closest relative is Smith's mother, Virgie Arthur, who has been estranged from Smith for many years. Arthur, however, has said that she doesn't want custody of the baby, although she has expressed reservation with the baby staying with Stern whether or not he is the father.

The paternity of Dannielynn will have a major effect on the baby's inheritance, especially if Smith did not have a will. Most likely, the biological father and Dannielynn would end up splitting any inheritance from Smith—her own millions of dollars in earnings plus any potential recovery from the Marshall estate.

Marital Status

In September 2006, Smith and Stern held a "commitment ceremony" in the Bahamas and were apparently planning on a legal ceremony in late February. From all reports, no marriage certificate was issued by any authority in any country, so they don't seem to be legally married.

On the other hand, if it can be shown that their marriage was valid in any state, this would increase Stern's share of any inheritance—especially if he is shown to be the father of the baby. In this case, he would get everything.

TrimSpa lawsuit

In February 2006, before Smith's death, she and TrimSpa were named in a class action lawsuit alleging that the marketing of their weight loss pill is false and/or misleading. TrimSpa has already agreed to settle on other claims that their weight loss claims are unsubstantiated, paying about $1.5 million.

Smith's death doesn't stop her estate from being sued, and so, if the class action continues, her estate could be forced to pay up.

Bahamas Mansion

Smith's basis for establishing permanent residency in the Bahamas before the birth of Dannielynn was a mansion that she said was given to her by South Carolina developer and former boyfriend G. Ben Thompson. Even before Smith's death, there had been some dispute as to the real owner of the property, but since Smith's death, Thompson has had the locks changed to keep out Stern. In return, Stern had the locks changed again, and has since moved back into the mansion.

If it turns out that Smith was not the legal owner of the property, it could mean that her permanent residency in the Bahamas is invalid—which may affect where her estate is probated.

There's no telling which of these things will be decided first, although a February 20 hearing is set to help determine Smith's daughter's paternity. It will likely take many years and many lawyers to get all of these issues resolved, and the results could leave little Dannielynn and Smith's other heirs with millions, or nothing at all.