09/03/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
In the remote scrubland or Southern California on a warm summer day, Taran Noah Smith jumps off the front porch of the ramshackle farmhouse where he has been holed up for weeks with his new bride, 33-year-old chef and artist Heidi Van Pelt. Popping mulberries in his mouth, Smith, 17, recalls his eight-year stint as Mark Taylor in the hit ABC series Home Improvement. "My mother always used to tell me to look out for the sharks, people who were going to take my money," he says. "Turns out she was talking about herself."
The Smiths are clearly no peachy sitcom family. Nine months ago the teen ran away from his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home and has been locked in a bitter legal wrangle with his parents. Smith claims his father, David, 46, a manufacturer of desalinization equipment, and mom Candy, 55, who worked as her son's manager, used his TV earnings to pay their bills and to buy a four-bedroom house and 49-ft. sailboat. "I was basically supporting my entire family," says Smith.
Under California law, parents of child actors are required to put 25 percent of a child's income into a trust fund but can spend the rest as they see fit until the child turns 18. Smith's parents say they've done nothing wrong. "We're devastated," says Candy, who declines to discuss the specifics of the family's finances. "We love our child." The family's attorney Peter Flaxman says Smith's parents "just don't want him to squander away money."
Smith had hoped his April 27 wedding to Van Pelt would settle the dispute, making him an adult in the eyes of the law and giving him access to his approximately $1.5 million trust fund as well as to the almost $10,000 a month he makes in interest and Home Improvement residuals. (Van Pelt signed a prenuptial agreement.)
But Smith's parents have asked the courts to deny him control of his assets until he "has shown that he has reached some level of maturity," says their attorney Peter Flaxman. This month a family-court judge ruled that Smith didn't qualify for emancipation. He plans to appeal.
The younger of two children (his sister Aria, 24, is a student at Berkeley), Smith began modeling as a baby and was acting in TV commercials by the time he was 8 months old. At 7, the San Francisco native won the part of the youngest of Tim Allen's three sons on Home Improvement. "When it was over [in April 1999], it was like being forced to move out of a house you lived in for eight years and really loved," he says.
Afterward, Smith graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Southern California, producing CDs for garage bands on the side. But an even greater passion entered his life in April 2000 when Smith, then 16, met Van Pelt at a party for his TV brother Zachery Ty Bryan. They instantly hit it off despite the age gap. "My friends used to joke about his age until they met him," says Van Pelt, who has taught raw-food classes and worked as a clothing designer. "Most of them thought he was a lot older."
Initially, Smith's parents accepted the romance, even allowing Van Pelt to live in the family home. But last September, when Smith asked to be legally emancipated so he could claim control of his money, they demanded Van Pelt move out and forbade Smith to see her, he claims. Angry, Smith left the home last November with a few possessions and his pet rats, camping out on friends' couches and working as a window dresser on Melrose Avenue to earn cash. "I've learned what it's like to not have money," he says.
In April, in the hope of winning legal emancipation for Smith, the couple wed in a civil ceremony outside their lawyer's office in Topeka in Van Pelt's home state of Kansas. They exchanged vows and moonstone rings with no family members present. All, so far, for no legal gain.
"If you'd told me a few years ago I'd be doing this, I never would have believed it," Smith says of the family feud. "I mean, if you can't trust your parents, who can you trust?"
Johnny Dodd in Hemet, Calif.