Who should inherit the fortune of the late singer Johnny Hallyday, a former French citizen and a Californian tax resident? On both sides of the Atlantic, the rock star’s wife and two children are now fighting to stake their claim.
Johnny’s most recent will and testament, signed in Marnes-la-Coquette just outside Paris in 2014, states that his entire fortune and all royalties will be “left exclusively” to his wife Læticia Hallyday. Outraged by the decision, the singer’s children and their lawyers have contested the document. In a statement, the lawyers of Laura Smet and David Hallyday said that the provisions in the will signed by the late singer “go completely against French inheritance laws.”
In American law, heirs can be chosen by the signatory of a will, and one or several of their children can be entirely excluded. These provisions are legal across all 50 states. The U.S. businesswoman Leona Helmsley famously left the majority of her wealth to her dog instead of her two grandchildren when she died in 2007. This is unthinkable in France, where it is illegal to cut a child out of a will — even children from a previous marriage. This is upheld by the “hereditary reserve” written into article 912 of the French Civil Code.
“Habitual Residence” Subject to Interpretation
A European law challenges this principle, however. Regulation No. 650/2012, known as the “Succession Regulation,” came into force on August 17, 2015, and overrules the “hereditary reserve.” The document stipulates that international inheritance is subject to the law “of the State in which the deceased had his or her habitual residence at the time of death.” But the definition of “habitual residence” remains “vague and subject to interpretation,” according to a French lawyer living in New York.
This European directive has “opened the floodgates for jurisdiction conflicts and battles over interpretation,” says the lawyer. If French law prevails, then the singer’s two oldest children will be able to benefit from this “hereditary reserve.” In this case, Læticia Hallyday will have the choice between paying them a lump sum of money, or applying the law which states she will be granted ownership of half his assets, and the rights to the use of the remaining three quarters, which will then be left to Laura Smet and David Hallyday upon her death. However, if American law prevails, the singer’s entire fortune — estimated at tens of millions of euros — will be left to his wife. This latter scenario will leave his children with little hope of staking their claim.
So, was the “kids’ idol” a French or American resident? Everything will come down to this question of “habitual residence,” says Pierre-Alain Conil, a notary specialized in French-American law in cases of international inheritance. The tax residence of the Hallyday family has been in Los Angeles since 2013, but this is just one of the different criteria in play, according to Le Point magazine. “In order to apply French law, it is in the interest of the [singer’s] children to claim Johnny’s last residence was in France, as he spent most of his last days there either performing or being treated for his illness.” This is a question only a judge will be able to answer, but the French notary does predict a “legal battle” that could last ten years.
The Maurice Jarre Precedent
This type of French-American inheritance feud is not uncommon. The late French musician Maurice Jarre passed away in Malibu in 2009, and his name is now used to refer to a legal decision that has become case law. The composer of the Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack declared in his last will and testament that he “intentionally and voluntarily” excluded his two children. The French court of appeal ruled in favor of Californian law in September 2017, meaning that Maurice Jarre — despite being French — was legally able to disinherit his children.
Unlike Johnny Hallyday, however, Maurice Jarre had been living in the United States for almost 30 years at the time of his death. His “habitual residence” was not called into question. But it is important to “draw a line between the two countries” when managing assets, says Paul Tour-Sarkissian, a San Francisco-based French lawyer specialized in transatlantic inheritance. In order to avoid any conflict or contradiction, he recommends “drawing up a will for each country.”
The presence of an American trust in a French will, for example, can have “major repercussions” on inheritance in France. American law recognizes this group of different enterprises as being part of personal assets, whereas French law does not. “It is important to make separate arrangements for each country,” says the French lawyer. “Johnny could easily have avoided the questions his family are asking today!”