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The Dean Law Firm Blog

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Slaughter, Slander, and Scandal: Three Tantalizing True-Life Probate Tales

By Julia “Jules” Pullin

Everything’s bigger in Texas, including family feuds. Feuds over a wealthy family member’s estate is a spectator sport, especially as all court filings are public record. These lurid Houston probate cases filled our newspapers with tales of murder, will forgeries, and false spouses or children.

  1. The Estate of William Marsh Rice: Millionaire William Marsh Rice signed an 1893 Will granting a sizeable share of his estate to the Rice Institute. Rice’s attorney, Albert T. Patrick, conspired with Rice’s butler, Charles F. Jones, to seize control of Rice’s estate. Patrick prepared a new Will in 1900 leaving Rice’s entire estate to Patrick, and forged Rice’s signature on the Will. Not content to wait for Rice’s natural death, Patrick and Jones, murdered Rice. Only a suspiciously large check that Patrick cashed after Rice’s death alerted Rice’s bank to the fraud. In the end, Patrick and Jones were imprisoned and Rice’s original 1893 Will was probated, founding Rice University in Houston, Texas.
  2. The Estate of J. Howard Marshall: Houston oil billionaire J. Howard Marshal, II famously married Anna Nicole Smith when he was 89 and she was 26. Marshall died in 1995, just thirteen months after he married Smith. Marshall did not provide for Smith in his Will, which began a decades-long legal battle between Smith and Marshall’s family over the inheritance, originating in Harris County Probate Court 2 and climbing to the Supreme Court of the United States. Ancillary litigation between Smith and Marshall’s surviving family members continues to this day.
  3. The Estate of Howard Hughes: Houston-born Howard Hughes died in 1976 as one of the wealthiest men in the world. After his death, 40 purported Wills were proved forgeries, including a handwritten Will that Melvin Dummar, a gas station owner, possessed after Dummar picked up an emaciated Hughes on the side of a Nevada desert highway (a movie based on Dummar’s story, “Melvin and Howard”, won two Oscars). Hughes died without a Will, beginning a stampede of over 600 alleged wives, children, and cousins clambering to claim a share of his fortune. After 34 years of litigation, the estate was finally liquidated in 2010 in a Harris County Probate Court, and was ultimately split among Hughes’ legal cousins and their heirs.

You can read all court filings for the Estate of J. Howard Marshall and the Estate of Howard Hughes on the Harris County Clerk’s website. If you want to avoid legal battles over your estate, you should consult with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Julia “Jules” Pullin is an attorney at The Dean Law Firm, PLLC, a boutique law firm practicing in estate planning, probate, guardianships, and elder law. Julia Dean, the managing attorney, has been recognized as a Top Attorney and Leading Advisor by Acquisition International, Forbes, Newsweek, H Texas, Houstonia, and the Sugar Land Sun, and has earned Martindale-Hubbell’s Client Distinction Award. The Dean Law Firm, PLLC, has been named in the Top Five Top Estate Planning Firms by the Houston Chronicle, Reader’s Choice by Living Magazine, “Texas’ Most Outstanding Estate Planning Boutique” by Acquisition International and “Best Law Firm of the Year” by Lawyer International Legal 100.


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The Dean Law Firm, PLLC assists clients in Sugar Land, TX and throughout Houston in Fort Bend County and Harris County.



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