The legal storm that has swirled around Anna Nicole Smith during her lifetime promises to develop into a full-blown hurricane after her death February 8th. Barely twenty four hours later, enough issues have arisen to keep an entire faculty of law professors busy for years. While the controversies that surround most celebrity deaths have significance mainly to the public that followed those stars while they were alive, there are questions here with meatier legal significance.
I was immediately reminded of the convoluted exam questions in my torts class in the first year of law school :" A has decided to drive home after having five or six drinks in B’s bar and grill. Suddenly a psychedelically painted ambulance driven by C roars around a corner in front of his car with neither lights nor siren. A is totally distracted by the bizarre array of colors on the side of the ambulance and crashes into it. D, the patient in the back of the ambulance is suddenly ejected from the vehicle to the street where he is immediately run over by E, a little old lady returning from the library. Identify all parties and fully discuss all legal issues, claims and liabilities. This wacky fact pattern can barely compare to the issues to be confronted in the Smith case.
The first question is who will turn out to be the actual father of Smith’s infant daughter. At this time there are at least two and possibly three possibilities.The father will ultimately gain control over a large portion of Smith’s fortune, such as it may be. Also relevant is whether or not Smith was actually married at the time of her death. There were rumors about a "commitment" ceremony but it remains in doubt as to whether or not there was a legally recognizable marriage. If Smith was actually married, then her husband will doubtless be entitled to a fairly large share of her estate. If not, then her daughter inherits everything! Then, there is always the possibility that she may have been married –but not to the father of her child.
We are just getting started! Did Ms. Smith have a valid will at the time of her death or was she intestate?If there was a will and given her mental state over the past several months, would such an instrument withstand a challenge to its admission to probate?
Don’t forget that there is a real question as to her legal domicile at the time of her death. Was Anna Nicole’s domicile a particular state or was it the Bahamas? It is possible to have many residences but only one domicile (that place you really believe is your home. You vote there, pay taxes there, are part of the community, etc). The state or country of one’s domicile has jurisdiction over questions such as paternity as well as most questions concerning one’s estate, especially those surrounding the probate of a will or the designation of an administrator. The laws of many jurisdictions, however may come into play in determining the validity of a marriage since a marriage is legal if the jurisdiction where it was celebrated will recognize it as such. Also, an unmarried couple spending time in certain jurisdictions where they may hold themselves out as husband and wife may subject themselves to statutes that would declare them "married" by common law.
Had enough yet? We only now get to the basic question that adds the spice to the rest of this legal stew. Let’s recall that when the Supreme Court most notably involved itself in the probate proceedings of a state (Texas) , they did not award any sum of money whatsoever to Anna Nicole Smith. What they gave her was the right to a trial — to have her day once more in a Texas Court. Even though both of the main players (Ms. Smith and the son of her late husband Howard Marshall II) have both passed away. the issues survive . The best witnesses for both sides are no longer living. How will things pan out? Will Dannielynn Smith become one of the wealthiest infants in the nation? Only time, a battery of lawyers and a host of judges will tell. Stay tuned!