Estate planning is not just for the rich and famous but for any adult who wishes to protect their health and finances. Nonetheless, looking at the fiascos which often result from poorly-planned celebrity estates is instructive. Not only do such accounts underscore just how bad things can get when estate planning is overlooked, but they also illustrate how estate planning tools, if properly used, can save families from grief and conflict.
Prince, who died tragically from a fentanyl overdose in April of 2016, sits among both musicians and celebrities who left their heirs with an estate planning mess. In dying without a Will, Prince subjected his six siblings to a wrenching probate case that, five years on, remains unresolved and continues to eat away that artist’s estimated $300 million in assets. Heath Ledger, likewise, thrust his loved ones into turmoil by botching his estate plan. While the actor did have a will, he had overlooked the need to update it prior to his death and thereby inadvertently deprived his daughter of her inheritance.
Both of the above examples took place outside of Texas and yet the Lone Star State has also seen its fair share of high-profile, cautionary estate planning fails. The most notable example is, without a doubt, the case of oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II’s $1.6 billion estate which was first heard in Texas probate court in 1995 and which remained unresolved for twenty-two years.
Howard Marshall died on August 4, 1995, fourteen months after marrying model, actress, and television personality Anna Nicole Smith. Upon his death, the billionaire’s Will poured his probate estate into a revocable living trust which named his son, E. Pierce Marshall as the sole beneficiary. Smith received nothing and Howard Marshal’s other son, J. Howard Marshall III was likewise disinherited. This circumstance led both parties to file a lawsuit contesting the will in Harris County probate court.
Pierce Marshall’s argument was simple: his father’s estate plan had been created twelve years prior to his death and was indisputably clear. Smith and the younger Howard Marshall countered that Pierce Marshall had obstructed the deceased’s intention to include them in his trust by isolating and controlling the elder Howard Marshall. This is where things get messy.
At the same time that Smith sought to contest her deceased husband’s Will, she was sued by a woman who previously worked as a nanny to her son. This resulted in the model filing for personal bankruptcy in a California court, which, in turn, awarded Smith $450 million from Pierce Marshall’s estate in addition to $25 million in punitive damages. How a California bankruptcy court intervened in a Texas probate court battle is a story for another time; the result, however, was that Pierce Marshall fought back, appealing the bankruptcy judgement and bringing the case to the California Supreme Court. This then led to an appeal from Smith which—astoundingly—brought the case to The United States Supreme Court. The highest court in the US ultimately ruled in Smith’s favor paving the way for her to continue contesting the elder Howard Marshall’s Will which, of course, she did.
Tragically, before the Texas probate court could finish adjudicating the case, both Smith and Pierce Marshall died. The conflict, however, did not, yet the details are too extensive to address here.
The lesson to be learned from the story of J. Howard Marshall II’s estate is that probate is rarely simple and sometimes downright nightmarish—even if your assets do not number in the billions. A professional estate plan drafted by an experienced estate planning attorney can save you from such monumental headaches, however.