Ex-Sitcom Actor Battling Parents
Lawrence, Kansas attorney helping with fight
by Madinah Hazim and by Michael Hooper
A former child television star -- with the help of a
Lawrence attorney -- is battling his parents for control of his $1.5
million trust fund.
Former "Home Improvement" star Taran Noah Smith, 17,
hired attorney David Scott Whinery to help him fight his parents, Candy
Bennici and David Smith, of Marin County, Calif.
Last April, Whinery wrote up a marriage affidavit for
Smith and 33-year-old Heidi Van Pelt in Topeka. They hope the marriage
will convince a California judge that Taran should be emancipated and
gain access to his trust fund.
With no money in his pocket, the teen star and his
wife temporarily moved into Whinery's home last week.
Smith was "Mark Taylor," the youngest star on the
"Home Improvement" TV sitcom from 1991 to 1999.
Smith said his parents are squandering his money, but
his parents say he is still a teenager who is going through a rebellion.
"What we can't accept is a 33-year-old woman having
the ability to influence our son in the way that she has," his mother
said in a statement to The Topeka Capital-Journal. "Within weeks of
meeting Heidi, Taran completely changed his spiritual beliefs, his
outlook on society, his feelings toward higher education, his attitude
toward his family, his diet, his image and even his feelings toward
video games, movies and other things he used to enjoy as a 16-year-old
Van Pelt, a former PitchWeekly staffer, is from Kansas
City, Mo., and has known Whinery since high school.
Although there is a 16-year age difference between
Smith and Van Pelt, both say the age gap doesn't affect their relationship.
"I'm an artist, and I like to have a fresh outlook on
life," Van Pelt said. "I'm always learning new things and open to new
things, so the age difference doesn't bother me. The only thing Taran
and I fight about is the dishes."
Smith said he shares the same belief.
"When people first hear about the age difference they
think that something is up, but when they see us together they see us
and know that there are really no gaps," he said.
In a Marin County courtroom on Aug. 7, Smith's parents
won the right to continue receiving income from his $1.5 million trust
fund, which Smith has no access to until he is 18. Whinery said he is
working to get another California attorney to help Smith gain access to
his trust fund.
Smith said he spent eight years working to support his
family and didn't have a real childhood.
Whinery said Smith's family receives about $60,000 per
year in residuals from "Home Improvement" and another $70,000 to $80,000
in interest and earnings from the $1.5 million trust fund.
"Right now I'm making between $10,000 to $15,000 a
month from my trust fund and residuals combined and I see none of it,"
Smith said in an interview at Whinery's home. "They also have ownership
of my car, and I still have to pay a mortgage of $5,000 a month on my
$585,000 house in Sherman Oaks, California, -- that they live in."
Smith's parents have been married for 26 years. He
grew up in Northern California with an older sister, Aria, who was a
child model. He followed in her footsteps and eventually picked up
several acting jobs before being selected from 400 kids to be on "Home
Improvement," featuring Tim Allen.
His mother said she drove him to the set every day and
stayed there to watch over him and managed all of his activities.
By California law 25 percent of his earnings went
directly into a trust account to be given to him when he is 18.
She said the other 75 percent was put in a corporation
and 50 percent went to taxes, 10 percent to Smith's agent and the
remaining 15 percent went to Smith's mother as a manager fee. She said
the 15 percent was used for all family expenses.
Smith said his parents believe they are entitled to
his money for managing him.
"Money corrupts people," he said. "With all the child
stars it's all the same cliches. The parents see that all they have to
do is drive the kid to work and they make a tremendous amount of money."
Whinery said Smith's parents need to learn how to work
"This whole case has turned into a fiasco fueled by
his parents' greed," Whinery said. "They need to get their own source of
income and leave the kid alone."
While Smith was still living at home, he said his
parents were controlling his money and giving him $300 a month for an
Smith claims that not only do his parents still live
in his house and don't pay rent, but they also racked up excessive
credit card debt.
"My sister, father and mother all have American
Express credit cards that have bills of over $4,000 monthly that they
are paying with my money," Smith said.
Currently, Smith said, his mother is unemployed. His
father has started his own business with money borrowed from is son.
Smith was 16 when he met Van Pelt on April 25, 2000,
while he was attending the University of Southern California. Shortly
thereafter he dropped out of college.
When the parents learned Van Pelt's true age, they
forbade their son from seeing her. But he refused and ran away with her.
Smith said: "I was attending USC and Heidi lived right
by USC and my parents didn't want me to see her anymore. In an attempt
to stop us from seeing each other they took away my license and they
quit driving me to school."
Smith said when the problems with his parents reached
a point that he could no longer handle, he knew that he had to get out.
To break away from his parents, Smith said he decided
to ask his friends for help.
"One day when my parents were out running errands, I
decided to call some friends and they came and picked me up," he said.
Once Smith was gone, his parents filed a missing
persons report and even had a detective and private eye chasing him and
his new wife.
"We had to move around a lot," Smith said. "We stayed
in L.A. for a month and eventually had enough money to go to Maui. We
stayed in Maui for four months until we couldn't afford it anymore and
then we went to work as art directors for a movie in L.A."
Smith has been supporting himself through a variety of
jobs, such as car detailing and landscaping.
He said most of his problems began after "Home
Improvement" went off the air and his parents nagged him to find another
"My parents lied to me and said, 'If you don't get
another acting job we can't afford to live in L.A.,' so we as a family
requested to have the interest off the trust fund come in every month to
help pay for living expenses," Smith said.
According to Smith, he never had the chance to have a
"I started 'Home Improvement' when I was 7 and the
show ended when I was 16," he said. "I never had the chance to decide
what I wanted to do with my life. When I was 16 I knew that I didn't
want to act anymore."
Smith said a happy future for him would be one without
"I just want my trust fund," he said. "I want it to be
there when I turn 18. Ultimately, I just want them to leave me alone, my
money alone and my wife alone."
But his mother was sobbing as she said she missed her son.
"Taran has always been a sweet, loving, human being,
particularly with his family," she said. "The animosity and hatred he
displays now is so difficult for his whole family. His grandmothers,
aunts, uncles and sister are suffering, too."
Smith's parents now are pursuing another battle. They
want to gain access to the principle of the trust fund, but Whinery said
it is unlikely they will win that battle.
"It's time to let him go," Whinery said. "He never had
a childhood. He's been supporting the family since he was 6."
Bennici said she has mixed feelings about his new wife.
"It hurts and is very frustrating ever since he has
met her, his whole attitude towards his family has changed," Bennici
While Candy Bennici was sobbing, she said: "His
running away has affected this whole family. I can't even describe the
tremendous pain we have been through. We love him so much."
Although Smith's parents express love for him, he
isn't sure if it is genuine.
"They always say that they are so worried about me,
but they haven't called me in nine months," Smith said.