Advice and the Advisor

Five infamous family financial feuds

At war over the family fortune

Mediaphotos | Getty Images

Alleged gold diggers, suspected grifters and disgruntled exes. These five (in)famous heirs—some still living, some deceased—are notable for controversy, warranted or not, surrounding their claims on fortunes amassed by ailing, dead or estranged spouses or parents.

By CNBC's Kenneth Kiesnoski
Posted 08 July 2015

Sue Ann Arnall

Harold Hamm with now ex-wife Sue Ann Arnall.
Getty Images

Talk about sour grapes ... to the tune of nearly $1 billion. It was reported this January that Sue Ann Arnall (pictured right), ex-wife of oil multibillionaire Harold Hamm, had rejected the check for $974,790,317.77 her former husband sent to satisfy the terms of an Oklahoma judge's divorce decree. It seems that after 26 years of marriage and two and a half in divorce court, Arnall feels she's owed a bigger chunk—figuring in the several billions—of the fortune owned by Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources, according to The Wall Street Journal. The paper reported that attorneys for Arnall—who was also awarded two homes, a ranch and other assets, amounting to several million dollars—are appealing the judge's decree, claiming she cannot accept any payments without jeopardizing that legal effort.

Anna Nicole Smith

Former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith arrives at the U.S. Supreme Court February 28, 2006 in Washington DC.
Getty Images

Model, celebrity spokesperson and TV reality star Anna Nicole Smith garnered a lot of attention—a good deal of it negative—in the two decades she spent in the public eye after she first appeared in Playboy magazine in early 1992. Apart from her untimely death at age 39 in 2007 from a prescription drug overdose (just five months after her son, age 20, died under similar circumstances), the life event that earned Smith her biggest slice of media pie might have been the 16-year legal haggle over her rights to part of the $1.6 billion estate of her deceased husband of just 13 months, nonagenarian oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall.

Various state and federal court rulings between 1995 and 2011—four years after her own death—found both for and against Smith and, later, her estate; Smith had argued that Marshall had verbally promised her a portion of his wealth prior to their 1994 marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled against Smith's estate four years ago.

Barbara Piasecka Johnson

Polish-born cook and chambermaid Barbara 'Basia' Piasecka Johnson, who married her boss, Johnson & Johnson heir John Seward Johnson Sr., stands in court March 11, 1986 in New York City.
Yvonee Hemsey | Getty Images

The butler did it ... or, in this case, the maid. At least, that's what the six adult children of Johnson & Johnson heir John Seward Johnson seemed to think when they sued their Polish-born stepmother Barbara Piasecka Johnson for a share of the $400 million or so inheritance they were left out of when their father died in 1983. Trained as an art historian but hired as Johnson's chambermaid soon after her 1967 arrival in the U.S., Piasecka Johnson, also known as Basia, wed her 76-year-old employer—42 years her senior—in 1971 after he divorced his second wife, Esther.

The kids weren't asked to attend the ceremony and apparently still had axes to grind a dozen years later, when they contested their deceased father's will, saying he had not been mentally competent when designating Piasecka Johnson—whom they claimed had been a neglectful, even abusive spouse (charges she denied)—as his heir. Three years and millions in legal fees later, the case was settled out of court, with Johnson's children reportedly getting about 12 percent of assets. Piasecka Johnson, by 2007 worth some $2.7 billion and named one of Forbes magazine's 400 richest Americans, went on to become a noted art collector and philanthropist. She died in 2013 at age 76.

The Abers ... and Mickey Rooney

Actor Mickey Rooney, his wife Jan Rooney and son Chris Rooney.
Getty Images

The final years of American film legend Mickey Rooney, who died in 2014 at age 93, were hardly golden. With an estate valued at only $18,000 upon his death, onetime box-office kingpin Rooney was the victim of financial elder abuse by—depending on whom you asked—either of two stepsons through his (eighth) wife of 36 years, Jan Rooney.

Estranged brothers Christopher (pictured far right) and Mark Aber have reportedly exchanged accusations in the press of theft from and abuse of their stepfather, but it was Christopher and wife Cristina whom Rooney and his court-appointed conservator, Michael Augustine, filed suit against in 2011, alleging elder abuse and misappropriation of his likeness. In late 2013, the plaintiffs won a $2.8 million judgment against Christopher and Cristina Aber. Mark Aber (who also goes by the name Mark Rooney) and wife Charlene were named Rooney's sole heirs. Meanwhile, the actor's eight living biological children from four of his seven previous marriages—as well as Jan, from whom Rooney was separated—received nothing.

Anthony Marshall

Anthony Marshall, son of Brooke Astor, attends his sentencing at Manhattan Criminal Courts on June 21, 2013 in New York City.
Getty Images

Another case of elder abuse. In 2009, Anthony Marshall, the only son of New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor, was convicted of swindling his ailing mother—who had died two years prior at age 105—out of at least $1 million after she began to suffer the effects of Alzheimer's disease. Marshall—a former U.S. ambassador, CIA operative and Broadway producer—was sued by his own son Philip in 2006, for alleged mistreatment of Astor, as well as mismanagement of her funds. The elder Marshall was found guilty of 14 of 16 counts brought against him in a 2007 indictment. In mid-2013 he served two months of his one- to three-year sentence before being released due to ill health and dying in December 2014 at age 90.