This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court ventured into an area it had last addressed 60 years earlier: the scope of the “probate exception” to federal jurisdiction. For more almost two centuries, the federal courts have recognized an exception to federal jurisdiction for certain matters that are within the special jurisdiction of the probate courts, although there is no express statutory language spelling out the exception. In Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. ___ (2006), the Court reaffirmed but also narrowed the probate exception.
The Marshall case drew considerable attention in legal circles because of its important implications for the boundary between federal and state courts’ competence. The case drew even more attention from the public at large because one party, Vickie Lynn Marshall, also goes by the name Anna Nicole Smith, internationally known model and reality TV star. The facts of the case are as much grist for entertainment buffs as the legal issues are for anyone concerned with estate planning and courts. The facts also show the reason estate planners should have special concern for the scope of various courts’ jurisdiction over probate-related issues.