By Senior legal analyst
msnbc.com
updated 2/12/2007 1:04:41 PM ET 2007-02-12T18:04:41
LEGAL ANALYSIS

Boobs and bucks. In the end, this is what Anna Nicole Smith's life seems to boil down to, and it seems to explain our fascination with her. 

Dead at 39, she was embroiled in several fierce legal battles. She was fighting for her billionaire husband's estate, defending a paternity suit involving her newborn baby girl, and being sued as the spokeswoman for the Trimspa diet pill. The big questions she left behind are how much money will she inherit, who gets her daughter, and who gets the money now that she is dead? You might think that whoever gets her child gets her money, but this might not be so.

Battle over Marshall's money
First, how much of Marshall's money is Anna Nicole entitled to?  At the time of her death, the court had yet to rule. To understand this dispute, let me give you some background.       

When she was 26, she married 89-year-old billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, a Texas oil tycoon. He died a year later. Marshall wrote his will after he married Anna Nicole, cutting her out entirely, leaving her nothing other than the 8 million dollars worth of property and jewelry he had given her while he was alive. Anna Nicole tried to have Marshall's will set aside, claiming that he intended her to have half of his estate. Marshall's son Pierce (who is Anna Nicole's step-son, oddly enough), defended the will in a Texas probate court. After a five and a half month jury trial, Anna Nicole lost.The probate court found that Marshall's will was valid and gave her nothing.   


Around the same time, Anna Nicole filed for bankruptcy in a California federal court. Pierce jumped into her bankruptcy case trying to prevent her from discharging her debt to him in bankruptcy.  He alleged that Anna Nicole owed him money for defaming him when she accused him of fraud and of trying to cheat her out of her inheritance.  

Anna Nicole answered his claim by asserting truth as a defense. She said she didn't owe him money because what she said about him was true. The bankruptcy court sided with Anna Nicole and agreed that Pierce had tried to cheat her out of Howard's money. The court awarded her $474 million, nearly half a billion dollars. That claim was appealed to the U.S. District Court in California, which again sided with Anna Nicole, but reduced the award to $88 million. Pierce appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and won. The court overturned the judgment. 

Anna Nicole appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and surprisingly, the Court took her case. Even more surprisingly, Anna Nicole won. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals should decide whether Anna Nicole was allowed to have her day in federal court, even though the probate court had already ruled. The open question for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is whether there can be two separate proceedings for the same money: one in probate court and one in federal court.

The outcome of Anna Nicole's lawsuit over her husband's fortune hangs in the balance as does the amount of money to which she is entitled.   Is it the $8 million her husband gave her, or the $474 million the bankruptcy court gave her, or the $88 million the federal court gave her?

Anna Nicole outlived Pierce who died when he was 67. And now the suit has outlived Anna Nicole. 

Who gets the money?
Second, who gets that money now that she is dead?   This depends in part on whether Anna Nicole had a will and whether it was valid. If she had a will, it may be invalid if she left everything to her son Daniel who predeceased her and was written before Dannielynn Hope was born. If Stern turns out to be her executor and sole beneficiary, the will may be invalid if he exerted undue influence over her and she was coerced into leaving him everything.  

If she had no will, a court will distribute her assets according to the law of intestate succession in the place of her domicile. But it is unclear where she was domiciled.  One can have many residences but only one domicile. Was she domiciled in the Bahamas? Or was she residing in the Bahamas but domiciled in the U.S.? Just as she battled for J. Howard Marshall's money, so will there be a battle for hers.    

Paternity does not determine custody
Third, who gets Dannielynn?  Anna Nicole is survived by her 5-month-old baby daughter, Dannielynn Hope, born in the Bahamas three days before her 20-year-old son died from a drug overdose. Anna Nicole named her lawyer, Howard K. Stern on the birth certificate. But a former boyfriend, Larry Birkhead, claims he is the biological father.  

Birkhead filed a paternity suit in a Los Angeles court which ruled before her death that she and the baby had to submit to DNA testing.   The day after she died, Birkhead's lawyer petitioned the court for an emergency order to harvest DNA from her corpse. The court declined to rule until the parties briefed the issue as to whether a California court has jurisdiction to order Florida to do anything.

Ironically, the California court did order the Florida medical examiner to preserve the body for ten days, until February 20, when the court will hold a further hearing.   (In yet another odd twist, the Medical Examiner completed his autopsy, but was unable to determine the cause of death without further testing.  He reported he collected her DNA and was ready to release the body, but couldn't, not only because of the court order, but because he didn't know to whom.   So far, according to the M.E., no one has stepped forward to claim her body.)

But paternity of Dannielynn does not determine custody, nor does custody determine inheritance.   As for the child, the court first has to establish paternity before it decides custody. And which court has jurisdiction over paternity and custody is an issue.   It seems likely a California court will decide whether Birkhead is the father, but a Bahamian court will likely decide the issue of custody.  If Birkhead is not the father, both paternity and custody remain open issues, as does the question of which court has jurisdiction.

Most likely, the money will go to Dannielynn.   Whoever gets custody of Dannielynn does not automatically get to be the legal guardian of her money.  They may or may not be in charge of her money.   But because her legal guardian can use her money for her support and maintenance, it may be that whoever gets the child gets the gold.   It is no wonder people are coming out of the woodwork to claim they are the baby's biological father.  Most recently, in addition to Howard K. Stern and Larry Birkhead, Zsa Zsa Gabor's longtime husband claims he may be the child's father. Some have even said that Anna Nicole may have inseminated herself with J. Howard Marshall's frozen sperm making the heir to his fortune also his daughter.  

But remember, whoever stands to inherit Anna Nicole's money also inherits the lawsuits against her. Whoever gets her money may lose it all if the Trimspa lawsuits succeed.    

So who really gets her money?  It seems the real heirs to her fortune are the lawyers who will battle over it for many years to come.   

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