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Anna Nicole Smith's Fight for Share of 89-Year-Old Husband's Fortune Went on for 20 Years

Complex legal proceedings continued well beyond the model's 2007 death.

When 26-year-old model Anna Nicole Smith married 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall in 1994, many believed that she was with him for his money. After all, he was an elderly billionaire and she was a young up-and-coming star. But, Smith maintained that she truly loved J. Howard, and those close to her have said the same, including in the new Netflix documentary, Anna Nicole Smith: You Don't Know Me. Smith is also said to have turned down earlier proposals from J. Howard that happened during their relationship, which began in 1991.

But, regardless of whether they were mutually in love or not, Smith did fight to get what she believed was her fair share of J. Howard's wealth following his 1995 death. In fact, the legal filings that began in 1996 kicked off 20 years of court proceedings that continued far beyond the death of Smith herself in 2007 and the death of J. Howard's son E. Pierce Marshall—to whom he left his riches—in 2006.

Read on to find out more about Smith's legal battle for what she believed was her share of her husband's fortune.

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Smith and J. Howard were married for one year.

J. Howard Marshall and Anna Nicole Smith in a clip from "Anna Nicole Smith: You Don't Know Me"
Netflix / YouTube

Smith first met J. Howard in 1991 at the Texas strip club where she was working. During their relationship, Smith's modeling career took off, including when she posed for the cover of Playboy in 1992. According to Interview magazine, Smith turned down past proposals from J. Howard but eventually agreed to marry him. They tied the knot on June 27, 1994, and just over a year later, J. Howard died in August 1995 at age 90.

Smith argued that she was entitled to half of J. Howard's estate.

Anna Nicole Smith in a still from "Anna Nicole Smith: You Don't Know Me"

J. Howard left Smith and his older son, J. Howard Marshall III, out of his will, instead leaving his entire fortune to his other son, E. Pierce. This included massively valuable Koch Industries stock.

As reported by Forbes, in 1996, Smith filed for bankruptcy, and around the same time E. Pierce filed a defamation lawsuit against Smith in regard to her claims that he schemed to take her part of J. Howard's estate. Smith also filed a counterclaim for half of the estate.

The legal proceedings and appeals continued from there. As reported by People, at one point Smith teamed up with J. Howard III to sue E. Pierce, claiming that he conspired for 20 years to become the sole heir.

The cases became mixed up with each other and hard to parse. For instance, at one point Smith was awarded $475 million, but this was later reversed by another decision. The cases took place in California, Texas, and in federal courts, and eventually, the Supreme Court became involved.

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The Supreme Court made two rulings.

Anna Nicole Smith out the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006
Win McNamee/Getty Images

As reported by Forbes, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in relation to the Smith and Marshall case twice. In 2006, the Supreme Court reversed a circuit court decision that involved Smith's bankruptcy claim.

In 2011, the Supreme Court saw Stern v. Marshall (Howard K. Stern was the executor of Smith's estate; Marshall, in this case, referred to Elaine Marshall, the widow of E. Pierce.) This time, the court made a precedent-setting decision that "the bankruptcy court exceeded its powers under Article III of the Constitution by entering a judgment on a counterclaim based on state law in Texas that wasn't core to the reorganization proceedings," according to Forbes. NPR reported that this decision essentially meant that the Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court ruling that a bankruptcy court did not have the authority to award Smith the $475 million.

The battle finally came to an end in 2015.

Anna Nicole Smith at the premiere of "Be Cool" in 2005
Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock

Despite the deaths of J. Howard, Smith, and E. Pierce, the legal proceedings continued for several more years after they passed. (For the record, J. Howard III is still alive today and 87 years old.) Long story short, Smith's estate was not awarded money from J. Howard's estate.

In 2014, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter dismissed an attempt to award sanctions from the Marshall family to Smith's young daughter, Dannielynn Birkhead. As reported by Forbes, Carter said that E. Pierce and his lawyers had shown "a distinct disinterest in rules or ethics," but that Smith/Birkhead's side hadn't shown sufficient evidence of damages.

"Time spent litigating the relationship between Vickie Lynn [Smith's real name] and J. Howard has extended for nearly five times the length of their relationship and nearly 20 times the length of their marriage. It is neither reasonable nor practical to go forward," the judge said.

In 2015, there was another decision—this one by an appeals court—that reversed over $500,000 in sanctions that Smith had been previously ordered to pay E. Pierce.

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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