Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News, and CBSNews.com.
(AP Photo/"Entertainment Tonight")
Apart from leaving a sorry legacy of conflict, ridicule, scorn, lust and misery, Anna Nicole Smith leaves to posterity one other thing: a Byzantine set of legal conflicts that will probably take years to untangle. In fact, if judges and lawyers ever get together to write a book about how not to handle probate, estate and child custody issues, they will probably use the Anna Nicole Smith story as the backbone for the story.
There are so many unresolved legal issues it is hard to know where to begin, or to end, and besides, by the time you read this some of those issues already may be resolved. So instead of focusing upon the things that Smith and Company did wrong, or upon the hundred or so possible scenarios that could play out over the next few years, I thought I would humbly offer a few suggestions on what other families, other couples, can try to do right when it comes to maneuvering through the shoals of family law.
First, and I know this is probably obvious to most of you, make sure you know who the father of each child is. Don't let it get to the Jerry Springer point—or the Anna Nicole Smith point. If there is any doubt in anyone's mind about paternity, cooperate to get the test done quickly and easily—even without the need for lawyers. Especially for you would-be dads out there, this is a big deal. Several states now are trying to revise laws that require you to pay for child support even if you are not the real father of the child in question.
Second, if there is any money involved, try to negotiate some sort of prenuptial agreement that helps resolve in advance any custody or financial issues that may arise following the end of a marriage. Sure, it might generate a little tension at the beginning (or end) of the engagement. But that's a drop in the bucket compared with the legal and emotional turmoil that can occur, and which will now occur with even more force in the Smith case, when things are left jumbled.
Third, if you are going to pretend to be married, go ahead and do it and do it right. As people now are finding out, the "commitment ceremony" that Smith and Howard K. Stern participated in last September might as well have been conducted by Mickey Mouse. The "quasi-marriage" state between Smith and Stern at the time of Smith's death only serves to confuse things more than they need to be.
Fourth, make sure you have a clean and unambiguous and enforceable will. Make sure you have a lawyer either draft it or review it to ensure that it says and does what you want it to say and do. And make sure that lawyer isn't the same fellow who might be either a beneficiary of that will or a trustee or personal representative of it. And, of course, to have a good, solid will you really need to know the answers to all the questions above—the paternity of offspring, the legitimacy of marriages, the terms of financial agreements made prior to marriage and all the rest.
From and through these lessons some good can come from what is otherwise a pathetically bad and sad story. All that matters now, really, is whether and to what extent that little baby, the only truly innocent party in all of this, can be protected and secured and given an opportunity to lead a safe, happy and healthy life. For most children, that's a fairly good bet. For little Dannielynn Hope it's as unclear as most of the rest of the questions surrounding her mother's life and death.