Justices hear case on estate of oilman

He promised playmate nearly $500 million

March 01, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- It was not what you would call an Anna Nicole Smith performance.

Demurely dressed, the former stripper slipped in a side door of the Supreme Court yesterday and listened quietly in the back while her lawyers argued that Smith - now Vickie Lynn Marshall - was entitled to nearly $500 million she had been promised by her octogenarian husband, the late Texas oilman J. Howard Marshall II.

She had been cheated, they said, when the tycoon's son forged documents and tried to file a will that left all the assets to him.

Bush administration lawyers went to bat for her, too - although for different reasons. They want tax disputes involving estates to be decided in federal court, not in a state probate court. Similarly, the widow wanted her case decided by federal judges, not Texas probate judges.

Her notoriety notwithstanding, most of the justices appeared convinced that her legal claim was a strong one.

She is saying, "Just give me the money I would have had," if her husband's wishes had been honored, said Justice David H. Souter.

Afterward, Smith - the name she adopted 13 years ago as Playboy's Playmate of the Year - disappointed scores of photographers who had gathered on the court's steps. She emerged from the building and was quickly driven away in an SUV.

She gave no interviews and steadfastly refused to play the role of Anna Nicole Smith.

For much of her life, she had made herself a spectacle. She was a 24-year-old topless dancer when she met the elderly oil tycoon. He proposed marriage a week later. They wed in 1994, but he died a year later, leaving an estate estimated at $1.6 billion.

Since then, she has been locked in a bitter legal battle with the tycoon's son, E. Pierce Marshall.

After they were married, the oil billionaire ordered his attorneys to draw up a trust that left his wife half his assets.

The legal dispute grew more complicated when she filed for bankruptcy in California in 1996. Usually, a federal bankruptcy court can claim "exclusive" control over all financial matters affecting the bankrupt person. When a bankruptcy judge in Orange County took up the case, he ruled for Mrs. Marshall and said she was entitled to the money promised in her late husband's trust.

However, the Supreme Court has said that state courts should have exclusive control over deciding wills and settling estates. Pierce Marshall contended - and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed - that the will should be decided in a Texas state court, not a federal bankruptcy court. That legal dispute prompted the Supreme Court to take the case.

Los Angeles lawyer Kent L. Richland, Mrs. Marshall's lawyer, said the oilman wanted half his assets to go to his wife. "This was intended to be a gift," he told the justices. "It had nothing to do with probate."

U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement filed a brief on the side of Mrs. Marshall because the government wants tax disputes settled in a favorable forum. Sometimes, if a deceased person has a tax liability, it is not clear whether that dispute should be decided in a state court that handles estates or a federal court.

"The United States has a substantial interest in preserving its ability to have claims to which it is a party resolved in federal court," Clement said in his brief.

A ruling on the issue could have a wide impact involving disputes over estates and make Mrs. Marshall a rich widow. But her 67-year-old stepson promised that wouldn't end the legal battle.

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