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The girlfriend of Oscar-nominated singer/songwriter Elliot Smith cannot collect on the deceased rocker’s estate, despite his alleged pledge to take care of her financially for the rest of her life, because she acted as an unlicensed talent agent, a split California appellate court ruled Tuesday.
Jennifer Chiba sued Smith’s estate in 2004 claiming she was entitled to a portion because they had lived together, shared equally their earnings and property and held themselves out to the public as husband and wife. Smith, she claimed, promised to support Chiba for the rest of her life.
She also claimed she acted as Smith’s manager and agent, including booking gigs for him, and was entitled to 15% of all proceeds he earned. She sought more than $1 million.
But the state labor commissioner and later the trial court ruled Chiba was not allowed to make a claim on the estate because she acted as an unlicensed talent agent under the state’s Talent Agencies Act.
In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed 2-1 that while Chiba did have a “cohabitative agreement” with Smith, she also had a recording management agreement. Justices Fred Woods and Laurie Zelon ruled both of those contracts were “inextricably intertwined” and could not be considered as seperate agreements in the case.
But Justice Earl Johnson dissented, writing the two agreements were severable and Chiba could enforce her cohabitative agreement, known as the “Marvin arrangement” named after the infamous palimony case involving actor Lee Marvin.
The split decision could open the door to state Supreme Court review, if Chiba appeals.
The lawsuit was filed close to a year after Smith, who battled with depression and drug addiction, died from two stab wounds to his chest. Chiba was with Smith as the time of his death and though it was initially reported as a suicide, the Los Angeles coroner’s autopsy results were inconclusive.
Smith was nominated for a best original song Oscar in 1997 for the song “Miss Misery,” written for the film “Good Will Hunting.”
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