Could the oldest woman in the world have been a fraud?
Not many people will recognise the name Jeanne Calment, but she is the main character of this article and her story invites reflection, regardless of the truth of the various claims made about her.
First, let’s see who Jeanne Calment (probably) was: she was born in Arles, in the south of France, in 1875 and died in 1997 at the age of 122 years, 164 days: this happens to be the oldest age, as far as we know, of any human being ever to have lived. This is clearly remarkable – having been born at a time when the average life expectancy of a French woman was 45 years, she managed to outlive not only her own generation, but also a number of successive ones. It is worth noting that average life expectancy has been influenced greatly by the high rate of infant mortality in the past: in 1875 roughly 18% of babies in France died before their 1st birthdays – today it is less than 0.03% – so once you made it through your first year, your prospects were much better.
Of course, becoming really really old is the sort of thing that might get you into the Guinness Book of World Records, and may provoke a certain amount of interest from medical researchers concentrating on life extension, but how much else of interest can there be in the topic? Well, according to Norris McWhirter, one of the founders of the Guinness World Records (and as reported in the article linked below): “No single subject is more obscured by vanity, deceit, falsehood, and deliberate fraud than the extremes of human longevity.”
It turns out that the case of Jeanne Calment is complicated by the possibility of her not being who she said she was. The accusation of fraud is based upon the idea that she actually died in 1934, the year in which Jeanne’s daughter Yvonne is supposed to have passed away. Jeanne’s family, so it is argued, decided to declare that the daughter had died, with Yvonne then playing the role of her mother Jeanne for the rest of her life. Yvonne was born in 1898, making her death at 99 years old in 1997, if the accusation is true, somewhat less remarkable.
What could possibly have motivated the family’s decision to switch places between mother and daughter? Look no further than those two certainties of life – death and taxes – for the answer. It is clearly quite difficult to cheat death, but as the Calment family was well-to-do, saving an estimated 250,000 francs in inheritance taxes (something close to €1M in today’s money) can’t have seemed like a bad idea. If this is true, then full marks for creativity – we are certainly well beyond the bounds of your average tax evasion scheme! The story gets even better, though, with the decision of Jeanne (or Yvonne?) to sell the life estate of her apartment to her notary in 1969, at the age of 94. The agreement allowed Jeanne to remain in the property and obliged the notary to make regular payments to her until receiving full title upon her death. This sort of agreement, also reasonably common in Italy (the nuda proprietà), is essentially a bet by the buyer on how long the life tenant is going to live for. In this case, Jeanne not only outlived the notary but enjoyed continued payments from his heirs as well, ultimately receiving more than twice the value of the property she sold. Talk about a bad bet!
Reflecting on estate planning
What does the above have to teach us? Either that people will go to extreme lengths to save on their taxes, or that they like to dream up good stories on the topic. Certainly we should reflect on estate planning and wonder what might be coming down the line in terms of inheritance taxes in the reforms that will be forthcoming from the Draghi government over the coming months. Currently, assets passing from parent to child are taxed very lightly in Italy compared with other European countries, with a rate of 4% applied on the excess value over €1M per heir. The rates increase to a maximum of 8% with a zero threshold for an heir with no family connection to the deceased, so even in the current worst case scenario taxes are relatively low.* It is worth noting that gifts and inheritances are treated in the same way under Italian law, so it is possible to make a gift up to the threshold limit today without incurring taxes; subsequent amounts inherited would then be subject to the taxes applicable at that time, but a gift now would be made under the current rules that may well become less advantageous in the future. There are various other mechanisms available for efficient estate planning in Italy, the main one being life insurance wrappers: the amounts received by the beneficiary of a life insurance policy are not technically part of the deceased estate, as long as the policy itself is set up in the correct way.
The above constitutes a simple comment on estate planning in the Italian context, but every situation is different and I often engage with clients’ legal counsel to help make sure that the overall plan will work well in the various interested jurisdictions. If you are thinking about reviewing your estate planning in Italy or are considering moving here from abroad, it is never too early to start the discussion – feel free to send me an e-mail and we can organise a time to talk.
Where does this leave us in the case of Jeanne Calment? If you want to read the whole article, which is long but fascinating, the link is here. I won’t spoil the outcome, but I think the journalist’s ultimate conclusion is the right one. I do hope, however, that they never do the DNA testing suggested: the world is better with a bit of mystery every now and again.
* Inheritance taxes may also be due in other jurisdictions depending on the location of your assets and links to other countries.