The Real Jeanne Calment Scandal

Varied Russians are claiming that the world’s oldest woman – and oldest human – Jeanne Calment was a fraud. It wasn’t actually Jeanne who lived to be 122, but her daughter who lived to be 100 or so. This was all over a potential capital gains – or inheritance tax – bill in the 1930s. All most fun and interesting and a useful lesson in the perils of inheritance taxes in general. They’re not victimless, people do truly hate them and will go to some length to avoid them. Not great additions to the gaggle of ways to pluck with the least hissing.

The thing is though this isn’t all just ancient history for if it’s true there’s a much more recent fraud to be considered:

Oldest ever woman Jeanne Calment, 122, may have been a fraud

Hmm. So, not quite the advertisement we thought for the age defying effects of soap dodging then.

Yuri Deigin, a genealogist, claims that Mrs Calment actually died in 1934 and that her daughter, Yvonne, usurped her identity as part of a tax scam. As a result the woman who died in 1997 was in fact only 100 years old. The death of Mrs Calment’s daughter was registered in 1934 in her home town of Arles in southern France, French archives show. But Mr Deigin, who owns a biotech business, says that it was in fact the mother who had died. The genealogist said that Mrs Calment, born in 1875, and Fernand, her husband, were the joint owners of a department store in Arles, in Provence. If Mrs Calment’s death had been registered, Mr Calment would have had to pay inheritance tax of up to 38 per cent on his wife’s half of the business.

Well, maybe, could be. But pre-war tax dodging isn’t something that’s going to be reopened now. There is though an entirely different case to be considered.

There’s a French system of reverse mortgage. You’re some old folk in a nice apartment or house. You sell it to some investor. The investor pays you an agreed – and they get the local actuary in to say how much – monthly payment until you die. They get the place on your death. It turns the residence into an annuity. But note, that monthly payment is made for life.

Ms. Calment – to avoid the question of whether Mrs or Miss Calment – entered into such an agreement. Then lived for decades more, well longer than the investor in fact. His widow kept making the payments. Sure, that could just be win some, lose some, even a reminder of the importance of diversification. Being such an investor could make great sense if you had a spread of places, such that you gain the sort of probabilities the actuary used in working out the price. Writing just the one annuity doesn’t quite achieve that.

But if the annuity should have been written on the life expectancy of the daughter, not the mother, then that rather changes the price, doesn’t it? This is also all recent enough that a civil case at least could be tried. Possibly a criminal one too. There’s more to this than just taxes not paid in the 1930s….

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Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

“Mr Calment would have had to pay inheritance tax of up to 38 per cent on his wife’s half of the business.”

No he wouldn’t, his dead wife(‘s estate) would have to pay.

John Zygmunt
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John Zygmunt

If they taxed you on the value of the store, and Jeanne and Mr. Calment shared finances, then 38% of the value of the store would have to paid from those finances or they could have been forced to have to sell the store to come up with the money. France’s estate tax was different than in the US, where you would only pay once the both members of the previous generation are deceased.