Anna Nicole Smith probate case returns to the USSC

By March 17, 2011Uncategorized

While certainly not a case controlled by Arizona probate law, the Anna Nicole Smith case, as it is commonly known, is making its way back to the United States Supreme Court.  And because probate cases – particularly those with celebrity status – so rarely make it all the way to the nation’s highest court, it might be interesting to briefly review this case here.  Again, the Arizona Probate Code is not in question in this case, but Supreme Court rulings can have a large impact on the nation at large.

The case began with Anna Nicole Smith’s marriage to Texas billionaire, J. Howard Marshall.  Mr. Marshall passed away shortly after their marriage, and Mrs. Smith alleged that Mr. Marshall promised to leave her more than was provided in his carefully drafted estate plan.  Mr. Marshall’s son, of course, was strongly opposed to this, as it stripped him of a very sizeable inheritance.  After a seven-month trial, a probate court in Texas found that Mrs. Smith’s claim lacked merit, and it refused to give her more than Mr. Marshall’s estate plan called for.  Before the trial ended, however, Mrs. Smith’s attorneys initiated another legal proceeding in the California bankruptcy court, which ultimately found for Mrs. Smith.

While the case is clouded with several other issues, at its core is whether parties to a probate proceeding can forum shop for another court that might issue a more favorable ruling.  Obviously, the choice of forums in this case impacts the distribution of millions of dollars, as the bankruptcy court and the probate court came out in two entirely different directions on their rulings.  As an interesting side note here, both Mr. Marshall’s son and Mrs. Smith have passed away since the lower courts’ rulings, so the Supreme Court’s ruling will actually directly impact the parties’ estates.  And, of course, being a Supreme Court ruling, the outcome will affect all of us in a more indirect way.

The facts to this case are indeed unique, but complications arise in probate proceedings all of the time.  If you are a personal representative trying to better understand AZ probate law, the first person you should speak with is an Arizona probate lawyer.