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Anna Nicole Smith's estate loses claim to Texas oilman's riches [Updated]

March 19, 2010 |  1:10 pm

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/images/2009/02/12/anna_nicole_smith_the_opera.jpgTexas oilman J. Howard Marshall II never intended to bestow his fortune on his wife Anna Nicole Smith, a federal court ruled Friday, marking another twist in a convoluted inheritance battle that has outlived both Smith and her adversary, Marshall's son and executor E. Pierce Marshall.

The decision by a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal recognizes a 2001 jury verdict in a Texas probate court as having determined that Marshall's will was valid and free of illegal coercion by his son. The will left the oilman's $1.6-billion estate to Pierce Marshall.

The ruling appears to derail the late actress’ efforts to be recognized as an heir to half of Marshall's estate, which she claimed he had promised to leave her.

A topless dancer and Playboy centerfold, Smith met the 89-year-old Marshall at a Houston strip club he frequented, and they were married in 1994. Marshall died 14 months later, leaving behind an irrevocable trust and will that Smith claimed his son had forged or coerced her ailing husband into signing.

Smith had prevailed in getting judgments in her favor under bankruptcy proceedings in California, winning a court ruling in 2000 that she was due $450 million from her late husband’s assets, an amount later reduced by a federal district judge to $89 million.

Smith died of a prescription medication overdose at a luxury South Florida hotel three years ago. Pierce Marshall preceded her in death in 2006 at age 67 from complications of an infection. Lawyers for the two sides were representing the interests of Smith's now 3-year-old daughter, Dannielynn Birkhead, and Pierce Marshall's widow, Elaine.

The 9th Circuit panel ruling said the probate judgment precludes the bankruptcy case, giving precedence to the Texas court's decision that Marshall left everything to his younger son. The earlier case also denied claims to the fortune by J. Howard Marshall III, who had been written out of the oilman's will after business management disagreements.

An attorney for Pierce Marshall's widow said they were pleased with the appeals court ruling and hoped the long legal fight is now over.

"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, who represents Elaine Marshall. "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 probate ruling that came after the bankruptcy court decision. Richland said he was exploring the estate’s options to request rehearing by the full 9th Circuit or to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court again, vowing that “we will certainly be pursuing something further.”

[Updated at 3:08 p.m.: A previous version of this post said Richland could not immediately be reached for comment.]

A legal battle over Dannielynn's paternity also carried on after Smith's death at age 39. Both Stern and Los Angeles photographer Larry Birkhead claimed to have fathered the girl. DNA testing eventually proved Birkhead was her father and he was awarded custody of the child.

--Carol J. Williams

Photo: Anna Nicole Smith in 2005.

Credit: Danny Moloshok / Associated Press

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