France claims jurisdiction in Hallyday inheritance dispute based on rocker’s Instagram posts
July 5, 2020
Johnny Hallyday was idolised as the “French Elvis”, but he spent much of his time in Los Angeles and once vowed never to return to live in France until it changed its tax laws.
Before his death in 2017, France’s biggest rock star was repeatedly embroiled in rows with the country’s authorities over his claims to be exempt from French taxes as an expatriate.
The arguments have outlived him, with a prolonged and bitter inheritance battle between his widow and two of his children from previous marriages now hinging on his residency status.
In the latest twist in the legal soap opera, a French court this week accepted Instagram posts as evidence to uphold a challenge to Hallyday’s will by his daughter Laura Smet, 35, and son David Hallyday, 52.
The will cut them out of his estimated €100 million (£89m) estate, leaving everything to his widow, Laeticia, 44.
Under French law, parents cannot disinherit their children, but Hallyday’s will was drafted in English in California, where it is legal to do so.
Laura and David produced their father’s Instagram posts in court to support their argument that his true home was France and his fortune must therefore be shared with them in accordance with French law.
Their lawyers compiled a chart tracking the singer’s movements from Instagram.
It showed that Hallyday, whose real name was Jean-Philippe Smet, spent 151 days in France in 2015 and 168 in 2014 — enough, they argued, for him to be considered a French resident. Before his death at the age of 74, he spent eight consecutive months in France while being treated for cancer.
The court accepted Hallyday’s digital footprints as proof and overturned the will, ruling that the inheritance dispute must now be settled in France. Pierre-Jean Douvier, a lawyer for Laura and David, said: “Laeticia Hallyday will get her share, but there are now five heirs: the singer’s widow, the two little girls they adopted, and Laura and David.”
The court’s judgment also means that French authorities will be entitled to claim inheritance tax.
It is not the final episode in the celebrity family feud that has transfixed France.
Laeticia Hallyday’s lawyer, Ardavan Amir-Aslani, immediately said she would appeal. In a bombshell announcement on French television, he revealed that Laeticia, who was born in the south of France, had applied for US citizenship in March.
The move could support her claim that the Hallydays’ main home was Los Angeles.
“The principal centre and attachment of this family is the United States, where she has lived with her children for about 10 years,” the lawyer said. Further shocking Hallyday’s millions of French fans, Mr Amir-Aslani claimed that the star himself had also planned to apply for naturalisation in the US. “Johnny and Laeticia obtained ‘green cards’ as permanent US residents five years ago,” Mr Amir-Aslani said.
“I am frankly astonished by the ruling of the court and it will not stand.” But Laura Smet’s lawyer, Emmanuel Ravanas, said: “An appeals court will conclude that Johnny Hallyday is part of France.”
He expressed “regret that Laeticia Hallyday has decided to distance herself from France, her country, which has given her so much.”
Hallyday sold more than 100 million records during a six-decade career.
Although his Gallicised version of rock ’n’ roll was never a hit in the English-speaking world, he adored the US and loved riding his motorbike in the Californian desert.
The two Vietnamese children he adopted with Laeticia were given American-sounding names, Jade and Joy. In 2014, the year when he obtained his green card and made his will, the star told French reporters: “I’ll come back to live in France if the tax laws are changed.”
At the time, François Hollande, the former Socialist president, had imposed a 75 per cent supertax on annual earnings above €1 million. It was quietly dropped at the end of 2014 after sparking an exodus of high-profile personalities including Gérard Depardieu, the film star.