In the latest twist in a decade-long saga, a federal appeals court agreed Friday with a Texas jury's decision that billionaire J. Howard Marshall II never intended to leave his fortune to his wife, the late model and actress Anna Nicole Smith.
The ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dealt Smith's estate a setback in the convoluted inheritance battle that has outlived her as well as her adversary, Marshall's son and executor, E. Pierce Marshall.
Before her death from a prescription medication overdose three years ago, Smith had been fighting in Texas and California courts for recognition of what she claimed was her late husband's promise to leave her half of his $1.6-billion estate.
A topless dancer at the time she met 89-year-old Marshall, Smith married the oilman in 1994. Marshall died 14 months later, leaving an irrevocable trust under Pierce Marshall's control. Smith contended the son had coerced the elder Marshall into the arrangement.
In 2000, Smith won a California bankruptcy court ruling that said she was entitled to $450 million of Marshall's assets, an award later reduced by a federal district judge to $89 million.
The 9th Circuit said the 2001 probate court ruling that Marshall's will was valid precluded the bankruptcy decision. The probate ruling also denied claims by the oilman's elder son, J. Howard Marshall III.
An attorney for the estate of Pierce Marshall, who died in 2006 from complications of an infection, said his widow, Elaine, was pleased with the appeals court ruling.
"Our position has always been that there was a full and complete trial in probate court in Texas vindicating Pierce Marshall," said Hartford attorney G. Eric Brunstad. "That should have been the end of the matter."
Kent L. Richland, the Los Angeles attorney who represented Smith's executor and former partner, Howard K. Stern, deemed the 9th Circuit ruling "a fairly startling extension of the law" as it gave precedence to the later of two decisions.
Richland, acting on behalf of Smith's 3-year-old daughter and sole heir, Dannielynn Birkhead, said he was exploring the estate's options, vowing that "we will certainly be pursuing something further."