Anna Nicole Smith never finished high school, but the strange twists of the model’s life — and now her death — are helping teach lessons at law schools around the country.
Even before her death last month, Smith was a case study for students of estate law. Her lengthy, widely publicized court feud with the family of her late husband, Texas oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, over his estate landed them in at least one widely used textbook, “Wills, Trusts and Estates.”
Now, because of a poorly drafted will and the courtroom fights over her burial and custody of her infant daughter, law professors are finding her troubles can again serve as an example to students.
Professors say that over the past month they have answered questions about court proceedings in the case or have used Smith to illustrate an issue in class. Some have even distributed and discussed copies of her will.
“The students were asking right away — ’When are we going to talk about Anna Nicole Smith?”’ said Susan French, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. She assigned Smith’s will as reading material and discussed it in class.
About that will ...French and other professors said Smith’s case brings up good points for discussion and touches on issues covered by their classes.
For example, what happens if children are born after a will is written, as Smith’s infant daughter was? What happens if a beneficiary dies before the will’s creator, as Smith’s son did?
One clause, in which Smith appears to disinherit future spouses and children, is particularly intriguing for law classes. It’s something a man would write if he might have illegitimate children, professors said. Why would it be in Smith’s will? Was she an egg donor? Did she give a baby up for adoption? Or, was it just language carelessly copied from a template?
Smith’s will also illustrates one common flaw, that many wills don’t include a contingency plan, said Stephen Urice, a professor of trusts and estates at the University of Miami.
Urice’s students also read Smith’s will and discussed its flaws in class.
“It was enormously helpful,” student Lou Mandarini of the classroom critiquing of Smith’s will.
Lessons ripped from the headlinesUnlike Smith’s case, fresh from the headlines, most classroom examples seem divorced from daily events, said Sean Carney, a law student at the University of California, Davis.
“Even though the cases we read about come from the real world they come bound in a big fat book,” Carney said.
Two professors who expect to confront Smith’s case again are New York University’s Robert Sitkoff and Northwestern University’s James Lindgren, editors of “Wills, Trusts and Estates,” in which Smith previously served as an example.
Sitkoff is teaching the subject at Harvard this semester, and received e-mails from students asking questions about Smith even before he brought her up in class. Lindgren was surprised when a class of international students also expressed interest.
Smith will likely remain in their book’s next edition, both said, partly because students enjoy cases with recognizable participants.
“There can be contracts cases with Elvis. It does make it easier to teach,” Lindgren said.