The Lawletter Vol 44 No 5
Johnny Hallyday ("Johnny"), an iconic French rock star for six decades, modeled himself on Elvis Presley and James Dean. He died on December 6, 2017, leaving an estate possibly worth over $100 million. Born Jean-Philippe Smet, he adopted the last name of an uncle and was survived by his fourth wife, Laeticia, whom he married in 1996 when she was 21. Johnny's first wife was Sylvie Vartan, who was one of a group of French popstars in the sixties known as the Yeh-Yeh Girls. He also had a liaison with French actress Nathalie Baye, with whom he had one of his two older children, Laura Smet. The other older child is David Hallyday. Two younger children were adopted from Vietnam by Johnny and Laeticia.
A controversy arose concerning the proper jurisdiction over the estate. Johnny built a house in Los Angeles and spent a good portion of his last seven years in California, where he indulged his passion for motorcycles. He executed a will in California under which he left his entire estate to Laeticia, thereby disinheriting all of his children, apparently believing that his two older children were wealthy in their own right and that the younger ones would be well-provided for by Laeticia. Under California Probate Code § 21621, a parent may disinherit a child if that intention is manifested in the testamentary instrument. In February 2018, Laura Smet and David Hallyday commenced a suit in France seeking to annul the California will on the basis that under a regulation adopted by the European Union (effective August 2015), the law of succession that applies to a decedent's estate is the law of the country of the decedent's habitual residence. Laura Smet complained that the estate would not even release to her a signed copy of Johnny's record entitled "Laura," which was dedicated to her. The French court ruled that despite Johnny's significant time in Los Angeles, his Instagram account revealed that he had been spending considerable time on the French Caribbean island of St. Barts. Therefore, his presence on French territory predominated, meaning that French law must govern the administration of Johnny's estate. Under French law dating back to the Napoleonic Code, an individual cannot freely dispose of a portion of his or her estate known as "La Reserve." Where there are three or more children, La Reserve consists of three-fourths of the estate, which must be divided equally among the children (a surviving spouse is entitled to one-fourth of the estate unless he or she is explicitly disinherited). In this case, there would be no freely disposable portion of the estate, known as the "Quotite Disponible."
The French decision is being appealed, and Laeticia's lawyer says that a decision could take years. The French taxing authorities, of course, have an interest in the tax revenue to be derived from an estate of this size.
Pamela Druckerman, Should You Be Able to Disinherit Your Child?, N.Y. Times, May 28, 2019.
NPR, Morning Edition, June 1, 2019.
Guide to French Inheritance Laws and Taxes.
European Regulation No. 650/20121.