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On Friday, March 19 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the estate of Anna Nicole Smith in the latest case of a fifteen-year battle over the fortune left by oil tycoon and Yale Law School alum J. Howard Marshall II, Anna Nicole’s husband. Since shortly after J. Howard Marshall’s death in 1995, Anna Nicole Smith and E. Pierce Marshall, have been battling over J. Howard’s $1.6 billion estate. In 2006, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit.
Anna Nicole Smith first challenged Marshall’s will, in which Marshall left his entire estate to his son, E. Pierce Marshall, in a Houston probate court, claiming undue influence and lack of mental capacity. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Smith filed for bankruptcy in federal court, claiming that her deceased husband had promised her part of his estate. The Houston court found against Smith, but the bankruptcy proceedings initially awarded her over $400 million of Marshall’s estate. (This amount was reduced to $89.5 million in 2002.) The discrepancy between the Houston probate court and the federal court holdings sparked a legal battle over which court to obey that has outlived both Anna Nicole Smith and E. Pierce Marshall.
Recently, however, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the ruling of the Houston probate court should prevail. The Ninth Circuit argued that the Houston probate court’s finding should be given “preclusive effect because it is the earliest final judgment on matters related to this proceeding.” In re Marshall. Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit found that the bankruptcy court, whose jurisdiction arises from 28 U.S.C. § 157(b)(1), “exceeded its statutory grant of power when it purported to enter a final judgment in favor of Vickie Lynn Marshall [Anna Nicole Smith] on her counterclaim.” The Ninth Circuit stated that the bankruptcy court’s opinion on this claim was merely advisory, and that upon the issuance of the Houston probate court’s final judgment, the district court should have thrown out the entire case, instead of just reducing the award to $89.5 million.
Kent Richland, the attorney for the Smith estate, plans to appeal, either by requesting an en banc hearing of the Ninth Circuit or by taking the case before the Supreme Court once again.
It is unlikely that either the Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court will hear this case again. Deferring to the findings of a probate court–rather than a bankruptcy court–on the validity of the will seems like the best result. It should come down to expertise and jurisdictional issues, rather than which court issued its holding first.
– Theresa Weisenberger
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