In a drama worthy of a Hitchcock movie, the legal battle surrounding the estate of Anna Nicole Smith begins where all mysteries begin -- with the body.
Smith's estranged mother told a Florida courtroom Wednesday that she wants to take her daughter's body and exhume her grandson in the Bahamas and bring them both to Texas to be buried alongside each other.
The highly publicized trial is the first in a maze of legal twists and turns whose outcome even the best lawyers cannot predict.
"If I knew what was happening, I'd be betting on ponies at Aqueduct today," said Brian Wice, a criminal defense lawyer and legal analyst from Houston, Texas. "The fight over her estate will be as long and drawn out as it will be bloody. We've seen the first shot today. It makes the 'Soprano's' crew look like 'Mr. Rogers.'"
In the Florida proceedings, the judge is obligated to "simply dispose of the body," said Wice. "It's ghoulish ... she is a piece of property and this judge must determine who owns it. I hope when my time comes, whoever is called on takes in the notion of 'rest in peace.'"
Judge Promises Friday Compromise
As the medical examiner warned that Smith's body was decomposing faster than expected, Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin promised a compromise that "won't satisfy everybody" by the end of the week.
Smith died Feb. 8 at the age of 39. With her death still under investigation, her longtime companion Howard K. Stern is fighting for the former Playboy centerfold to be buried next to her 20-year-old son Daniel in the Bahamas, where he died from apparent drug-related causes last year.
Her mother, Virgie Arthur -- a former Texas police officer -- has other ideas.
Wednesday's courtroom drama splashed across even the staid New York Times, evoking caricatures with stories unto themselves. "They look like the rogues gallery from the 1800s," joked Wice of published pictures of the mom, the birth dad, the lawyer and the lover.
"Her dad looks like a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Evel Knievel," Wice said.
At the heart of this dysfunctional family's woes is a 5-month-old baby, Dannielynn Smith, who stands to inherit a fortune from her mother's death.
With a tangled web of characters, state jurisdictions, familial relationships and a baffling last will and testament, the baby will be headed for junior high school before she sees a penny, lawyers say.
The battle of Smith's body is being fought in the Florida courts because that's where she died. The outcome of that dispute decides whether the Broward County coroner will ship the body for burial to Texas or to allow Stern to bring it to the Bahamas. Because there was no express intention in Smith's will, it is up to the courts to determine her final resting place.
"The fact is, all the other litigation could drag on for years," said Jeff Baskies, a Florida probate lawyer. "The moral of the story is -- and I keep harping on this -- everyone needs to do estate planning. Those who don't cause havoc."
Smith was briefly married and gave birth to her son Daniel when she was a teenager. According to testimony by her mother, who hasn't seen her daughter since 1996, Arthur raised the boy while her daughter struggled to make ends meet as a topless dancer.
In 1994, at the age of 26, Smith married Texas oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II. Ever since his death a year later, Smith has fought his family over an estimated $500 million inheritance.
Paternity Battle is Next
All other legal battles in the Smith case will take place outside of Florida. The next critical one will determine who the father of Dannielynn is, a case still pending in the California courts.
So far, three men have claimed to be the baby's father -- Stern (whose name is on the birth certificate), her former boyfriend Larry Birkhead and Prince Frederick von Anhalt, husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor. Once paternity has been resolved, then the state's courts can look at the money issue.
The battle over Marshall's fortune has bounced from Texas and California courts all the way to the Supreme Court when Smith's claimed inheritance was reduced to $44 million. The highest court ruled in favor of Smith in the jurisdictional dispute, deeming California's federal appellate court as the proper venue for the case.
A long battle is likely and "someone is likely to settle," said Wice.
It gets more complicated. Questions of Smith's legal residence could have a ripple effect on all the other pieces of the legal puzzle. At the time of her death, Smith lived in the Bahamas, but her mother, Dannielynn's father or her guardian could challenge that.
"If either believes the California laws are more favorable, they could argue she was never a resident of [the] Bahamas," said Baskies. "That wouldn't shock me."
The legal domicile determines where the estate is administered and which laws will ultimately decide "who is the beneficiary and who gets the money," said Baskies.
Once the Florida court disposes of Smith's body, there is the matter of the estate -- and her will.
Smith wrote an unusual document, one that may come back to bite any of the characters who has a stake in Dannielynn's estate. "The document appears to be a will," said Baskies, "but it hasn't been offered to probate yet to determine if it is technically valid or not." Virgie Arthur claims, for example, that Stern was "an undo influencer."
Unusual Will Confuses Case
Once the authenticity of the will is determined, the question of who receives Smith's money must be settled. According to Baskies, Smith wrote, "All of the property of my estate ... shall be distributed to Howard Stern, Esq., to hold in trust for my child under such terms as he and a court of competent jurisdiction may declare ...
"I have intentionally omitted to provide for my spouse and other heirs, including future spouses and children and other descendants now living and those hereafter born or adopted."
That, says Baskies, is an "express disinheritance of after-born children, such as Dannielynn.
"This is an unusual provision because Anna Nicole was still of child-bearing age and could have had -- and indeed did have -- another child, Dannielynn," said Baskies. "As a result of this clause, it's unclear what will happen to Anna Nicole Smith's estate -- will it pass in trust or to intestate heirs?"
As a result of Daniel predeceasing, the disposition in the will, to the trust, might be invalidated, and Smith may be deemed to have died intestate. And to the question of legal jurisdiction: If Smith's legal domicile is the Bahamas, those courts would be charged with solving the case -- unless, of course, her legal residence is California.
"In Florida, the estate would go to a guardian for the benefit of Dannielynn," said Baskies. "The guardian would be determined by the court -- someone who would act in the best interest of the minor."
That could be Dannielynn's natural parents -- yet to be determined -- or the legal guardian, who would have to step up and manage the money.
Or, in another plot twist, what if Dannielynn dies as a minor before marrying or having children? The laws of intestate would pass the money on to the child's natural heirs -- either Birkhead, Stern or von Anhalt.
"Anything can happen between now and then," said Baskies. "And in this case, the father would stand in line for the whole estate. And there is another motivation for the father. The one who takes care of the child is likely to have favor with the child and be the beneficiary of the use of the money."
And then there's the language in the will -- the "express disinheritance."
"I wouldn't be surprised if Smith's mother tries to make some sort of argument that Dannielynn shouldn't inherit the money and it should go to her parents," added Baskies.
"It's not a great argument, but if we go back to intestacy, how can we ignore that Anna Nicole said it will not go to future children? Intestacy cannot ignore the will that said money would not go to future born children. And the next in line to Anna Nicole are her parents."
Why did Smith use such language? "A lawyer could have put it in there, or it could have been a mistake," he said.
As courts across the continent struggle with the fate of a little baby whose own narrative has not yet been written, those who are charged with loving and protecting her are having their day on television this week.
Even the lawyers got into the drama as Stern lawyer Krista Barth attacked Arthur's motives. "She's a barracuda in stiletto heels," mocked Wice. "She's meant to cross examine, not examine crossly. There are few absolutes in life -- but in child advocacy, you don't beat up on anyone's mom."
Regarding Stern, Wice said, "He's the fourth man on a four-man bobsled from hell that includes Joseph Goebbels, Idi Amin and OJ. You cannot, as a lawyer, put yourself in a position where you benefit from your client's demise.
"I love the judge," Wice added. "Probate judges don't generally come from central casting."
The moral of this character-driven story is simple, according to Wice. "I hope, in the after-life, there are far fewer morons to contend with than we have in this case."