Inside Anna Nicole Smith’s battle over her billionaire husband’s estate


A new Netflix documentary has rekindled interest in the late Playboy model who almost walked away with $475 million from her 90-year-old husband, J. Howard Marshall. A look back at the tabloid tale that made its way to the Supreme Court—twice.
Washington, UNITED STATES: Former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith arrives at the US Supreme Court with her attorney, Howard Stern (L) 28 February, 2006 in Washington DC. Smith is involved in a legal case before the court regarding the estate of her late husband, Texas oilman J. Howard Marshall II. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

“It’s very expensive to be me.” That was the testimony of former Playboy model-turned-actress Anna Nicole Smith in 2005, summarizing a contentious legal battle for the estate of her husband, J. Howard Marshall, that would drag on for years.

While the court-related drama largely played out more than a decade ago, a new Netflix documentary, “Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me,” has revived interest in Smith’s story. Viewers clearly want to know more–the documentary was trending in the top ten movies in the U.S. last week on Netflix. But reviewers suggest that the 116-minute look back “through the eyes of the people closest to her” doesn’t offer much substance and the public, too, remains unsatisfied–the movie currently has a dismal 45% reviewer rating and 61% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, the popular review aggregation site. (By contrast, “Pamela, A Love Story,” a current Netflix deep dive into the life of model and 1990s television star Pamela Anderson, rates 98% from reviewers and 93% from the audience.)

The movie may be unsatisfying in part because those who were most closely involved in Smith’s story–including, clearly, the former starlet–are either no longer around to offer input, or have distanced themselves from the project. Larry Birkhead, the father of Smith’s daughter, referred to the flick as a “cesspool.” Birkhead declined to participate in the film, telling Yahoo, “It’s not exactly high-end journalism.”

While the documentary may not succeed in telling the story of the real Smith, it also doesn’t take a deep dive into the legal issues that consumed much of Smith’s adult life. The larger-than-life model constantly made news in the 1990s, thanks to a series of ad campaigns, roles in movies like The Hudsucker Proxy, and her own reality show—but it was the fight for her late husband’s estate that really dominated headlines outside the tabloids. That fight went all the way to the Supreme Court—twice.

Anna Nicole Smith—whose real name was Vickie Lynn Hogan—was born on November 18, 1967, in Houston, Texas. Her early life was filled with drama. She dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, married at 17, had her first child at 18, and was separated by 19.

“I’ve always liked attention. I didn’t get it very much growing up, and I always wanted to be, you know, noticed.”

Anna Nicole Smith

Smith worked a few jobs, including at Walmart and Red Lobster, before landing the one that would change her life: a dancer at Gigi’s Cabaret. She testified in court that then 86-year-old J. Howard Marshall was wheeled into the club one evening in 1991 to see her strip. Marshall was depressed, friends say, following the deaths that year of two central women in his life: his wife, Bettye, and his mistress, 51-year-old Lady Walker. He referred to the latter as “the most tragic thing that ever happened to me.”

By his late 80s, Marshall was wealthy, following years of success. He graduated from Yale Law School magna cum laude in 1931 and served briefly as Assistant Dean of the school. He left for a government job in the Department of the Interior, where he became familiar with oil pricing and the petroleum industry. That led to stints in the private sector, including at Standard Oil, Ashland Oil and Refining Co., and Signal Oil and Gas.

His big money moves came in the 1950s and 1960s when he became involved with the Koch family. Marshall had co-founded a company, Great Northern Oil, that first sold an interest to Fred Koch. In 1969, he swapped the rest of his oil company shares to Fred’s son, Charles Koch, for an estimated 16% stake in Koch Industries, now America’s second largest private company.

Almost all of this history took place before Anna Nicole Smith was even born.

Smith said Marshall spent about $1,000 USD on her the first night they met. The next day, he invited her to meet him in a hotel room for lunch. After that, she testified, he gave her an envelope filled with cash and told her she didn’t have to dance in the club again. Marshall was smitten with her, spending, she said, $1.7 USD million on her in 1992 (about $3.8 million USD in today’s dollars), including reportedly paying for another breast enhancement surgery. He even put her on the Marshall Petroleum payroll as a consultant—a rumor that sounded preposterous but was substantiated when Smith reported it as income on legal documents years later.

At the same time, Smith’s modeling career was heating up. She had sent photos of herself to Playboy magazine and caught the eye of Hugh Hefner. She made the magazine cover in 1992 and was named Playmate of the Year in 1993. Her reward? A Jaguar convertible, $100,000 USD, and a 10-page spread in the June 1993 issue.

Smith eventually divorced her first husband, paving the way for her to marry then 89-year-old Marshall in 1994. Smith was just 26 years old. She wore a 22-carat diamond—reportedly worth $107,000 USD—to the Houston drive-in wedding chapel ceremony. Marshall was wheeled up the aisle behind her.

The marriage only lasted about 13 months. Marshall died in 1995 at the age of 90. His estate was worth $1.6 billion USD at the time—about $3.2 billion USD in today’s dollars.

A photograph of Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall II sits next to the casket at his memorial service on August 8, 1995, in Houston, Texas. He died at 90. GREGORY SMITH/GETTY IMAGES

Marshall had engaged in a series of tax planning maneuvers over the years, including transferring interests in Koch Industries—then primarily held in a company he founded called Marshall Petroleum—to his family members. And when he died, he didn’t provide for Smith in his will or trusts, a move that Marshall’s son, E. Pierce Marshall, would characterize as purposeful. Smith, however, claimed that even though Marshall had left her out of the will, he had planned to take care of her, including a promise to hand over half of his estate.

Court cases can sometimes make strange bedfellows, which happened here. Pierce stood to benefit from his father’s death under the will—but Marshall’s other son, J. Howard Marshall, III, was, like Smith, left out of the will. Marshall had never forgiven his namesake for backing William and Frederick Koch for control of Koch Industries, leaving J. Howard III out in the cold. As a result, Smith and J. Howard III teamed up to fight Pierce for what they claimed were their respective fair shares.

The matter went to a Texas probate court, where the back and forth between Smith and Marshall’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, made national news. In one infamous exchange, when Smith began crying on the witness stand, Hardin asked, “Miss Marshall, have you been taking acting lessons?” Smith replied, “Screw you, Rusty.”

After a six-month trial, the court sided with Pierce.

Smith, however, had another bite at the apple. On January 25, 1996, Smith filed for bankruptcy in California (2:96-bk-12510-DS), claiming that she had debts of over $1,000,000 USD that she would not be able to satisfy. Included in the list of creditors were several law firms, Harry Winston, Neiman Marcus, and a nearly $850,000 USD judgment awarded to Maria Antonia Cerrato in a suit charging sexual harassment, sexual assault, and false imprisonment. Cerrato, who had been the babysitter for Smith’s son, had alleged that Smith sexually assaulted her during a Las Vegas business trip. Smith countersued but failed to follow up, so a judge ruled that Smith had to pay Cerrato.

The idea of bankruptcy court is to protect the debtor and make sure that creditors get paid what’s owed to them to the extent possible. That means that when you file for bankruptcy, you have to list your debts—which Smith did—and your assets. Smith didn’t have many assets compared to her debts, listing about $2.7 million USD in personal and real property compared to nearly $9 million USD worth of potential liabilities. She included one more asset in her petition: her alleged interest in her late husband’s estate.

American model, actress and television personality Anna Nicole Smith (1967-2007), poses for Guess? Sportswear. Image: Getty

In the meantime, Pierce struck back, suing Smith for defamation and other relief in Texas. When he learned about the bankruptcy, he dismissed his Texas defamation suit and sought relief, instead, in bankruptcy court—a move that he likely later regretted. He alleged a lot of bad behavior on Smith’s part. In response, Smith countersued, claiming that Pierce interfered with her right to take property from Marshall’s estate. The legal filings set the stage for a lengthy judicial proceeding in California.

In 1999, the bankruptcy court issued an order discharging all debts and claims against Smith except for one: Pierce’s claim for defamation. That complaint and the counterclaim were set for trial in October 1999. Just before trial, the judge granted Smith’s claim for summary judgment—effectively ruling that Pierce did not have a valid claim. The trial proceeded, however, on Smith’s counterclaim. Pierce suggested that Smith was a gold digger and disputed her charge that Marshall intended to take care of her for the rest of her life. Smith, for her part, testified, “I don’t care what anybody says, I loved that man.”

On December 29, 2000, the bankruptcy court ruled in favour of Smith, finding that Pierce had interfered with Marshall’s efforts to gift Smith $449 million USD. The court also awarded Smith $25 million USD in punitive damages for what was described in court documents as “egregious behaviour.”

At the same time, the probate proceedings were continuing in Texas. Even though Smith dropped her claim, instead relying on the bankruptcy judgment, Pierce soldiered on, amending the proceedings to add new claims. Eventually, a Texas jury awarded Smith nothing in the probate suit. And in July 2001, Judge Mike Wood affirmed the jury’s findings. The judge also ordered Smith to pay over $1 million USD to cover Pierce’s legal costs and expenses.

And here’s where the game of legal ping-pong really heated up—both judgments could not be true.

The matter went to federal court, where a judge threw out the California bankruptcy court’s ruling and issued a new order that reduced the award to $88 million USD. Pierce protested, alleging that federal courts had no authority to decide the counterclaim and that the proper venue was the Texas probate court. He appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the decision, finding that a federal court had no authority to overrule the decision.

On May 17, 2005, Smith’s lawyers filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to clarify the scope of the so-called probate exception that allows local courts to control when federal jurisdiction is otherwise proper, even over claims between parties that are “ancillary” or “related” to probate. A few months later, the Court agreed to hear the matter. The usual flurry of briefs followed—with a curious addition. On November 21, 2005, the Bush administration asked then-acting Solicitor General Paul Clement to file arguments on Smith’s behalf. Perhaps that sounds a little generous. The White House’s legal team wasn’t aligning itself with Smith on evidentiary or equity grounds, but rather a technical one: they felt that federal court jurisdiction should prevail in such disputes involving state probate courts.

The matter was argued in the Supreme Court on February 28, 2006. Smith was in attendance, as was Pierce, who swore that Smith would not get anything from his father’s estate.

Just over two months later, the Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of Smith. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, with Justice Stevens concurring (meaning that he agreed with the outcome but had something to add). Notably, the Court found that “the probate exception reserves to state probate courts the probate or annulment of a will and the administration of a decedent’s estate…But it does not bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction.”

Image: Getty

That mattered, wrote Ginsburg, because Smith’s claim did not “involve the administration of an estate, the probate of a will, or any other purely probate matter.” Instead, Smith was “[p]rovoked by Pierce’s claim in the bankruptcy proceedings” and was seeking judgment against Pierce, not the probate or annulment of a will. With that, on May 1, 2006, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s findings and sent the matter back for review.

Pierce died about a month later, on June 20, 2006. His widow, Elaine Marshall, stepped in his shoes to see the matter—which was more than a decade old—through.

Smith died on February 8, 2007, after being found unresponsive due to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. She was 39 years old. She left behind an infant daughter, Dannielynn Birkhead (her oldest son, Danny, died of a drug overdose in 2006), and the matter pressed forward on behalf of Birkhead.

Just as before, the courts could not agree. And so, on September 28, 2010, the Supreme Court again agreed to hear the case. This time, the case caption was a little different: Stern v. Marshall. Stern, a lawyer, purported to be the father of Smith’s daughter, Dannielynn—and even tacked Stern onto her last name—until a paternity test proved otherwise, finding that the father was Larry Birkhead (many men had claimed to be the father, including Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt). Despite his lack of paternity, Stern represented Dannielynn in the battle against Pierce because he was the executor of Smith’s estate.

In June 2011, a split Supreme Court ruled against the estate, 5-4. The question was, again, a narrow one: Did the bankruptcy court have jurisdiction to tackle Smith’s counterclaim?

By statute, a bankruptcy judge may only “submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to the district court.” The bankruptcy court had concluded that Smith’s counterclaim was a core proceeding, while the district court disagreed. Ultimately, the Supreme Court found that while the statute permits the bankruptcy court to enter final judgment on Smith’s counterclaim, “Article III of the Constitution does not.” With that, the Supreme Court tossed the bankruptcy court’s filing.

This time, Justice Ginsburg found herself on the side of the dissent, together with Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Chief Justice Roberts delivered the majority opinion of the Court, writing that “this suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that … no two … lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause: innumerable young people have married into it;” and, sadly, the original parties “have died out of it.” A “long procession of [judges] has come in and gone out” during that time, and still the suit “drags its weary length before the Court,’’ he added.

He qualified that those words were not written about this case—they were taken from the Charles Dickens novel, “Bleak House” before adding, “but they could have been.”

Remarkably, the matter didn’t end there. In 2011, Smith’s estate filed another lawsuit in U.S. district court, seeking damages against Pierce’s estate. The court did not agree to hear the matter. That meant that ultimately, neither Smith nor her estate–including daughter Dannilynn–received the hoped-for windfall from Marshall’s estate. The matter was closed with Smith failing to prove her case in probate–and bankruptcy–court.

Throughout the proceedings, the Marshalls remained wealthy. In 2020, Forbes named the Marshall family to America’s Richest Families list. With a net worth of $18.5 billion, they came in at #14 on the list.

Smith’s bankruptcy case was finally closed on October 24, 2022, more than 25 years after it began. Smith and her fight for Marshall’s money dominated headlines for years and even now, we’re still talking about it. So ultimately, Smith finally got some of what she was looking for, telling Los Angeles magazine in 1993, “I’ve always liked attention. I didn’t get it very much growing up, and I always wanted to be, you know, noticed.”

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