Johnny Hallyday, referred to as the “French Elvis”, leaves behind a string of ex-wives and disappointed beneficiaries. His recent death has resulted in litigation over his multi-million dollar estate, with the central issue being whether French or California law governs the distribution of his estate.
It is not uncommon for Ontarians to have property in another Canadian province or in another country. Depending on the type of property, law other than Ontario law could govern the asset. For moveable property (i.e. bank account funds), the law of the domicile of the individual governs. Immovable property (i.e. real estate), however, is governed by the law of the jurisdiction where the real property is situated.
While it is nice to own a vacation property in Côte d’Azur, France, one has to keep in mind that French law would govern the property in France and it may affect how one wishes to dispose of that particular vacation home in his/her will. This is because in common law jurisdictions (e.g. Canada), people have testamentary freedom to dispose of their assets however they choose (with some exceptions, not discussed in this blog). However, in most civil law jurisdictions (e.g. France), the law embraces a different ethic to force heirship to specific family members.
The news surrounding Johnny Hallyday’s estate is a reminder of the importance of seeking proper legal advice if you have properties abroad.
Johnny was a celebrated French rock and roll singer and actor. He died in December 2017. Johnny was married five times (twice to the same woman). His last marriage to Laeticia Boudu was his longest, lasting 21 years. Johnny is survived by Laeticia and his four children: 2 biological adult children from previous marriages (Laura and David) and 2 adopted minor children with Laeticia.
In his will, Johnny left his entire estate to Laeticia and their two adopted daughters. Not surprisingly, Johnny’s estate planning has left many perplexed and his two biological children unhappy. Laura and David are contesting the validity of their father’s will, sparking a bitter family feud over an estate worth an estimated €100 million.
Reactions in France
While in North America we value testamentary freedom and the right to dispose of assets as one sees fit, the reaction in France has been one of outrage. So much so that French celebrities have commented on the family dispute. Brigitte Bardot, a well-known French actress, commented, “I am disgusted. If I were Laeticia, I would put things right. I would give David and Laura what they deserve.”
Eddy Mitchell, French rock singer and Johnny’s friend, said, “I do not understand how someone can disinherit his children.” Actor Jean Reno (you may remember him from the movie, The Professional, alongside Natalie Portman) urged the family not to yield to “hatred”.
Which Law Governs?
Johnny was born and lived most of his life in France. He also had assets in France. In 2014, Johnny executed a will in California, in accordance with California law, where he had real property and was domiciled for tax purposes. In that will, he left out David and Laura. In France, however, forced heirship laws make it virtually impossible to disinherit children.
Laura and David therefore argue that Johnny’s will is contrary to French law, which would have automatically split Johnny’s estate between the four children and Laeticia. The issue in dispute is then whether French or California law applies to the distribution of Johnny’s estate, which may take months or even years to resolve.
In the meantime, Laura and David sought an order in France to freeze Johnny’s assets in France. The judge who heard Laura and David’s motion ruled that there was a “real risk of a transfer of all assets of the deceased” to a US-based trust whose sole beneficiary is Laeticia. The judge therefore ordered that Johnny’s assets in France be frozen, noting that “the transfer could happen at any moment, and/or the liquidation of the estate, thus depriving them [Laura and David] of almost any chance of recovering a potential share of the inheritance”.
However, the judge did not freeze Johnny’s properties in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, California, where Laeticia lives most of the time with her and Johnny’s two minor daughters. The judge refused to freeze these assets to avoid “disproportionate consequences” on Laeticia and her minor daughters. It is not clear if the court turned its mind to whether it had jurisdiction to freeze assets in the United States.
This writer will definitely stay tuned for the outcome of this family dispute.
Many Canadians have assets in other jurisdictions, be it the United States or elsewhere. It is imperative to seek proper estate planning or tax advice to ensure which jurisdiction’s succession laws apply to the property abroad.