Anna Nicole Smith & J. Howard Marshall | Undue Influence?
In most cases of elder financial abuse, we tend to think of the widowed stepmother as a middle-aged woman in her 50’s, or even 60’s, who wages a contentious battle with stepchildren who are usually about the same age. In such instances, children from the first marriage often view the stepmother with derision, and as a gold-digger who married the old man purely for his money. Did she really love him or was she simply preying on a vulnerable elder, knowing that he would likely die soon?
Proving that a stepmother was a conniving schemer can be difficult, and these lawsuits are often adjudicated on the basis of expert testimony and eyewitness accounts. But then there are cases that would appear to be open and shut. Cases such as, for example, when a 28-year-old former Playboy model marries an 89-year-old petroleum tycoon. Of course, she married him for his money. Of course, she took advantage of his frailty to enrich herself. Or did she?
The oil tycoon in this case, J. Howard Marshall, was a brilliant lawyer and businessman with a sometimes-chaotic personal life. He attended Yale Law School and served as an Assistant Dean at Yale for 3 years. Marshall then left academia to become Special Counsel to Standard Oil in 1935, and from there he made a fortune investing in multiple oil-related ventures.
Marshall’s first marriage, which lasted 30 years and produced two sons, J. Howard III and E. Pierce, ultimately ended in divorce. He immediately married his former assistant, but he also started dating other women as his wife’s health gradually faded due to Alzheimer’s Disease. Starting in 1981, Marshall carried on a decade-long relationship with a Houston dancer named Lady Walker, but she died unexpectedly in 1991 due to complications from cosmetic surgery. He was lonely and liked the company of beautiful women, which led him to be a frequent customer at Houston strip clubs.
In October 1991, a 24-year-old Texas girl named Vickie Lynn Hogan was performing in a Houston strip club where she met the then 86-year-old tycoon. By all accounts, Marshall was immediately smitten with Vickie who, at the time, was already married. He lavished expensive gifts on her for more than two years and asked her to marry him. A year after her divorce in 1994 became official, and then going by the name Anna Nicole Smith, she married Marshall. He was 89; she was 28.
Because of the age difference, Marshall and Smith were always considered an odd couple, but by most accounts they were also great friends and constant companions. Not everyone was happy with the arrangement, of course, above all Smith’s step-son, E. Pierce Marshall, who was ironically 27 years older than she was. When she married his father, Smith stood to inherit the bulk of his father’s then $1.6 Billion estate.
But Pierce clearly saw what was coming and managed to take control of his father’s will and estate. Six months after the couple married, Howard Marshall became severely ill and Pierce Marshall moved to become appointed as his father’s legal guardian. When his father died six months later, the step-son had not only cut Smith entirely out of his father’s estate using revocable trusts, but he also managed to completely disinherit both her and his own son, neither of whom was named in any of his seven wills or trusts. What followed was a multi-decade litigation slugfest in which Anna Nicole Smith and her late husband’s grandson teamed up to fight her late husband’s son.
In what would become an epic legal battle, the court cases started in 1995, would wind their way through to the Supreme Court twice, and did not end even after Anna Nicole Smith and Pierce Marshall were both dead. Smith claimed that J. Howard told him she would inherit half of his estate, with the other half going to his grandson. Unfortunately for both, J. Howard never managed to put that into writing. Court decision after court decision has gone against her and her estate.
As late as 2011, however, it looked like Smith might win a small pyrrhic victory when her estate was awarded $44 million in compensatory damages from the estate of Pierce Marshall, but three years later a US District Court in Orange County overturned the award.
The litigation lasted so long that it ultimately caused the probate judge in the case, Mike Wood, to remark: “I am tired of this case. I’ve told you that from the beginning. I beg you to recuse me. I beg you to recuse me. I don’t want to deal with you people anymore. This is ridiculous. This is ridiculous. I am not going to spend a lot of time cutting at nits and gnats for people that are fighting over $20 billion, $10 billion that they didn’t earn. They didn’t create this wealth. It was created by a third party, and they’re just fighting over it. They can’t agree on anything. They can pay lots of lawyers. They can pay lawyers until hell freezes over. But they don’t want to agree to anything. They just want to pay lawyers.” After declaring, “it’s just not the way I’m going to spend my life,” Judge Wood finally recused himself from the case after 20+ years.
So far, no one has proven that Pierce Marshall used undue influence with his father to keep him from leaving half of his estate to his wife, and no one has proven that Anna Nicole Smith used undue influence to take advantage of a rich, old man. It turned out that the case of a 28-year-old stripper marrying an 89-year-old billionaire wasn’t open and shut after all.
So, what has happened to the now multi-billion Marshall inheritance these decades later? A new judge was appointed; the case continues in Probate Court.