Post-mortem legal war occurs over Anna Nicole Smith's body

The bickering over Anna Nicole Smith spiraled into a post-mortem legal war, with judges on both U.S. coasts issuing rulings and a parade of lawyers fighting for control of the body.

At the end of Wednesday, though, Smith's remains still were at the medical examiner's office, and a judge here said the dispute could be lengthy.

"We're going to have hearings, as many hearings as we need," Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin said at the start of afternoon proceedings. "This is just a warm-up."

At least three people are seeking control of Smith's body her longtime companion Howard K. Stern; her estranged mother, Vergie Arthur; and photographer Larry Birkhead, who claims to have fathered the model's 5-month-old daughter, Dannielynn.

Stern claims he is executor of Smith's will and wants to have her buried next to her son in the Bahamas; Arthur wants her daughter buried in her home state of Texas; and Birkhead simply wants to prove he is the father of Dannielynn, who potentially could inherit millions.

For now, though, the judge said Smith's body would stay until he makes a ruling.

"This body belongs to me right now," he said.

Smith, 39, died Feb. 8 after collapsing at a hotel. She was a Playboy Playmate of the Year and the widow of Texas oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, whom she married in 1994 when he was 89 and she was 26. She had been fighting his family over his fortune since his death in 1995.

On Wednesday morning, a case filed by Birkhead prompted a brief hearing before Circuit Judge Lawrence Korda. Korda ordered Smith's body temporarily retained by the morgue, following an earlier ruling in California.

But a Los Angeles judge later Wednesday lifted the ruling that the body be held.

Debra Opri, an attorney for Birkhead, said in a statement afterward that she was satisfied DNA samples would be provided by Florida authorities.

Opri has said Smith's DNA is needed to connect her with Dannielynn so no one could switch the babies.

"We don't care about the body," said another one of Birkhead's lawyers, Susan Brown.

It appeared the case would become solely under Seidlin's jurisdiction in probate court in Florida.

Stern's attorneys claim he is authorized to make her funeral arrangements. The petition includes affidavits from Smith's bodyguard, her physician, a neighbor and a friend stating that she wanted a Bahamas burial with her son.

"I think we all know Anna wants to be next to Daniel, and anything else is a tragedy," said Krista Barth, a lawyer for Stern.

Stern's attorneys provided a transcript of interviews Smith gave to "Entertainment Tonight" in October in which she said Arthur was her birth mother but nothing more.

"You want to hear all the things she did to me? You want to hear all the things she let my father do to me or my brother do to me? Or my sister?" she said, according to the transcript. "All the beatings and the whippin's and the rape? That's my mother. That's my mom."

Arthur's attorney, Stephen Tunstall, said the mother had become estranged from Smith over drug use. None of it made any difference now, he said.

"Since the dawn of civilization, the next of kin has been given the rights and responsibility of their dead," Tunstall said.

Broward County medical examiner Joshua Perper warned that Smith's corpse is decomposing and should be released. Her body will remain refrigerated until the judge rules.

Another potential paternity claimant, Prince Frederic von Anhalt, the husband of the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, has said he had a decade-long affair with Smith and wants a DNA test.

Custody of Dannielynn is being fought, too. A Bahamian judge issued an injunction Tuesday keeping the baby in the country until the custody case is resolved. Arthur, who wants to be named guardian of her granddaughter, sought the order because she feared Stern would take the child from the Bahamas, her lawyer said.

Arthur has said she is concerned about the baby's safety, noting Stern was present when Smith died and when Smith's son, Daniel, died in the Bahamas in September, reports AP.

"We have evidence showing Howard K. Stern is not a fit parent," Desmar Henfield, one of Arthur's attorneys, told The Associated Press.

Henfield declined to specify the evidence, and Stern, who is in the Bahamas, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

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