Social Media Becomes Evidence in Battle Over French Rocker’s Estate

Jun 8, 2019 | In the News

The family feud over the estate of rocker Johnny Hallyday – the first round, anyway – has come to a close. And here’s a sign of the times: the French singer’s social media account played a pivotal role in the feud. The situation underscores an emerging reality: what we put online can catch up with us – even when we
are gone!

Many Americans aren’t familiar with Hallyday, although he’s been a superstar in France for decades. Intrigued with American rock ‘n roll at a young age, he rose to fame as the “French Elvis,” selling over 100 million records during his career.

Hallyday died of lung cancer at age 74 in December 2017. At his death he had been living in Los Angeles for approximately ten years
with his fourth wife, Laeticia, and their two adopted daughters, Jade and Joy.
As an expatriate, Hallyday had a long history of locking horns with the French taxing authorities, stating in one interview that he might eventually return to France – but only
if it changed its tax laws.

He obtained his green card in 2014. That is the same year he had a
lawyer draft his will. The will left everything to his widow Laeticia. It disinherited
his biological adult children from his four prior marriages. In America, of course, you can do
this: you have no legal obligation to leave anything to adult children. Not so
in France,
though. There, surviving children are automatically entitled to a piece of the parent’s estate. Obviously, Hallyday’s adult children were none too pleased at being cut out of his will. His estate has been estimated to be about $112
million, consisting of several homes, many luxury cars, rights to his extensive music catalog,
and proceeds from a posthumously issued album that has already sold over a
million copies. 

Hallyday was mourned in France with all the pomp and circumstance
befitting a national hero, including a funeral procession along the
Champs-Elysees. Shortly thereafter, his adult children, French residents, took their grievances to a French court. Laura
Smet, 35, and David Hallyday, 52, argued that their father was not bona fide resident of the U.S.; thus, his will was invalid and French law should prevail, which would make them automatic beneficiaries of his estate. Smet expressed sorrow about her father’s decision, noting that under the U.S. will, she
did not even get to inherit the signed sleeve of the album “Laura” that her father had recorded to mark her birth.

Hallyday’s and Laeticia’s lawyers countered that Hallyday was effectively a U.S. resident and his U.S. will should prevail. Hallyday had lived in Los Angeles for ten years, they noted, and was raising his two youngest daughters there. They underscored that he considered it home. 

However, the lawyers
for the French family had an ace up their sleeve – and online ace. They got access to the Hallydays’ public Instagram accounts. Based on the dates of the posted photos, they demonstrated to the court that from 2012 to 2017, Hallyday had spent more time on French soil
than on American soil. This included time spent in St. Bart’s, a French island in the Caribbean, and
eight consecutive months receiving medical treatment in France just prior to his death.

On May 28 the Nanterre court handed the adult siblings a victory, ruling that their father’s domicile was France, and French law prevailed. The court stated: “Up
to the end he lived a bohemian and nomadic life, but above all a very French
life that led him to live… usually in France.”
  If the ruling stands, there are now five
beneficiaries: the two adult children; Laeticia; and the couple’s two young
children. Of course France
will also benefit, as it will get its hands on the inheritance taxes the estate generates.
allyday’s lawyers intend to appeal, citing evidence that he and his wife were already planning to apply for U.S. citizenship when he died.  

Seul le temps
only time will tell.

The Hallyday case has implications regarding how your social media may figure in your estate planning, will contests, and conceivably, a number of other legal issues. For example, if a disgruntled heir argues that you lacked capacity when you signed a will cutting him out, what will your Facebook posts say? Will you have made any comments, even in jest, referring to your poor memory or “losing it”? Suppose you relocate from New York and claim that Florida is your domicile, relieving you of paying New York State estate taxes. Will your Instagram account back you up, or betray you as they did Hallyday? So be careful what you post. This is a whole new world and this is uncharted territory!

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