Vickie Lynn MarshallThanks to Vickie Lynn Marshall your next will contest may be in federal court. You probably know her as Anna Nicole Smith – the 1993 Playmate of the Year and TV reality show star who married oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall when he was 89 and she was 26 (let me help you with the math, that’s 63 years difference in age.)  Marshall died 13 months after his marriage. Then began a lengthy battle over Anna Nicole’s claim for part of her deceased husband’s estate. 

Anna Nicole (or Vickie) claimed her husband promised her half his estate if she married him. But Marshall did not include anything in his will for Anna Nicole. The Texas Probate Court where Marshall’s will was probated ruled that Smith had no rights whatsoever to her deceased husband’s estate. (Remind me not to live in Texas.) She took her case to a bankruptcy court in California on the theory that her possible interest in her deceased husband’s estate was an asset in the bankruptcy. She accused J. Howard’s son, E. Pierce Marshall of scheming to deny her the inheritance by fraud, forgery and overreaching. She also filed counterclaims, among them a claim that Pierce had tortiously interfered with a gift she expected from J. Howard.

The bankruptcy court ruled in her favor. On appeal the 9th Circuit overturned the bankruptcy court, saying the case really belonging in Texas Probate Court citing the “probate exception.” The 9th Circuit held that the “probate exception” to federal jurisdiction should be read broadly to exclude from the federal courts’ adjudicatory authority not only direct challenges to a will or trust, but also questions which would ordinarily be decided by a probate court in determining the validity of the decedent’s estate planning instrument, whether those questions involve fraud, undue influence, or tortuous interference with the testator’s intent. The court also held that a State’s vesting of exclusive jurisdiction over probate matters in a special court strips federal courts of jurisdiction to entertain any probate related matter, including claims respecting tax liability, debt, gift, and tort

SCOTUS, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, overturned the ruling of the 9th Circuit. Ginsberg wrote that in general, state courts are given the authority to oversee wills and the administration of estates. In this case, however, Ginsberg said that Smith’s accusations against her husband’s son make this more than just a probate matter. See Marshal v, Marshall, 547 U.S. (2006).

Here are some excerpts from Justice Ginsburg’s opinion:

“This Court rejects the Ninth Circuit’s alternate rationale that the Texas Probate Court’s jurisdictional ruling bound the Federal District Court. Texas courts have recognized a state-law tort action for interference with an expected gift or inheritance.”

“ It is clear, under Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U. S. 64, that Texas law governs the substantive elements of Vickie’s tortuous interference claim. But it is also clear that Texas may not reserve to its probate courts the exclusive right to adjudicate a transitory tort.”

“At issue here, however, is not the Texas Probate Court’s jurisdiction, but the federal courts’ jurisdiction to entertain Vickie’s tortuous interference claim. Under our federal system, Texas cannot render its probate courts exclusively competent to entertain a claim of that genre.”

Interestingly, the Solicitor General entered an Amicus brief supporting Anna Nicole and supporting expanded federal jurisdiction.