Where There's a " Will" There's a Way

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Anna Nicole Smith left us quite a legacy. When she was alive, she gave us modeling, dieting, and even acting tips. Now, in her death, she's given us some lessons on how we should take care of our loved ones and ourselves.

With her death, the whole world watched a televised media circus over where her body should be buried and who gets what in her will. With her body finally buried, her baby is in legal limbo, and the court battle over her late husband's oil fortune remains unresolved. So, it's time for us to learn a lesson from her and ensure that our business affairs are in better order. I'm talking about our wills (and those of our spouses) — something we all know we're going to need someday.

Anna Nicole (whose given name was Vickie Lynn) entertained us, and we embraced her through her many colorful transitions. Her story began as an age-old one; billionaire old man (who was pushing 90) woos hot young blond bombshell (who rivals Pamela Anderson on a good day) when he sees her dancing at a cabaret. Romance blooms and they marry. The old oil tycoon then dies the very next year.

Anna Nicole said her sugar daddy, J. Howard Marshall, promised to take care of her in the inevitable event of his death. By “take care of” her, she seemed to mean half of a $1.6 billion fortune! Sounds great, except for one small glitch —- nothing was ever in writing. This means the former stripper got zero, instead of inheriting “00's” because Marshall placed most his fortune into an irrevocable trust that named his son Pierce as the beneficiary. After Marshall passed away, Smith fought for what was “promised” to her —- but the old man's son tried to make sure she didn't get a red cent. After all, she had nothing in writing to protect her!

For the past decade, Anna Nicole battled Pierce over Marshall's (aka Daddy Warbuck's) money. The competing lawsuits set off proceedings in both state and federal court. In 1996, while the estate was subject to state probate proceedings, the beautiful blonde filed for bankruptcy in California. In doing so, she accused her former stepson of scheming to deny her an inheritance. Pierce in turn, fought fire with fire and accused her of defaming him with public accusations. The bankruptcy court agreed with Anna Nicole, leaving her with close to $90 million. I guess you could call that getting “taken care of”!

Meanwhile, the validity of Marshall's will and trust were the subject of essentially the same dispute in a probate court in Houston. Only this time, the outcome left the late widow with nothing. A jury declared the will and trust valid —- leaving her high and dry. With these two judgments on the table and eighty eight million at stake —- the Supreme Court stepped in to determine which decision prevailed.

The High Court overruled a lower court's ruling, which held that the case belonged in the Texas probate court. The unanimous decision kept Anna Nicole's case alive —- but they left it up to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to really determine who would be living the good life.

Sadly, the death of this former playmate and reality TV star did not signal the end of a nasty court battle and the jury is still out whether her 6-month-old daughter, Dannielynn, will inherit the billions that Anna Nicole claimed was rightly hers. Right now, the case of Marshall v. Marshall has turned into a battle between two corpses —- with the heirs continuing the fight. By the time this legal labyrinth is settled, little Dannielynn might be able to read the verdict. If I were to weigh in on the situation, I'd say the story of this multi-tasking beauty is a wake-up call for us. We all need to make sure that our wills are explicit and clear.

The legal requirements aren't nearly as complicated as you might fear — a few simple rules can ensure that your wishes are followed:

1) In most states you must be 18 or older.

2) You must be of “sound mind” to make a valid will. This isn't a rigorous standard, it just means that you know you're executing a will, know the general nature and extent of your property, and know the “objects” of your bounty (your spouse, children or other relatives you expect to share in the estate).

3) There must be a provision that indicates your intent to make the document your final word —that is, you really intended it to be a will.

4) Although oral wills are permitted in limited circumstances, wills should be written and witnessed. I'm sure Ms. Smith didn't suspect that Daddy Warbucks wouldn't stick to his word. But — come on — with all her Hollywood experience, shouldn't she have known that a promise needs to be in writing?

5) Finally, a formal will must be properly executed. That means it contains a statement at the end of the record attesting that it is your will. The date and place of signing and the fact that you signed it before witnesses, renders this a legal document.

If your will doesn't meet these criteria, the courts could disallow it and your estate may then be distributed according to a previous will or, in the absence of a will, according to the laws of your state. This brings me to one final point — make sure your will is current. In the battle over Ms. Smith's own fortune, she last updated her will five years ago. The main problem: she named her deceased 20-year-old son as the beneficiary and makes no mention of her new baby daughter, born after the death of her son. In effect, Anna Nicole's will is five years old and excludes little Dannielynn. Court battles are guaranteed in this matter, which only adds to everyone's pain.

So, the heartbreaking lesson is abundantly obvious: update and clarify your will. And, to play it safe, go ahead and get the signing of your will videotaped. Now there's a full proof solution that allows you to rest (in peace), knowing your family will be taken care of under your terms.

Sources:

The Seven Essentials of a Valid Will
Making Your Will Legal
Anna Nicole Smith wins over justices
Supreme Court to Weigh In on Anna Nicole Smith's Inheritance Case
Anna Nicole Smith's Legal Afterlife

• E-mail Lis With Your Legal Questions!

Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.