Johnny Hallyday's children seek to freeze estate in row over will

Kim Willsher in Paris
Laeticia Hallyday, Laura Smet and David Hallyday at Johnny Hallyday’s funeral. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Warring members of Johnny Hallyday’s family have sought a court order freezing the late French rocker’s estate in the first round of a bitter dispute over his estimated €100m (£89m) fortune.

The battle has pitted Hallyday’s widow Laeticia, to whom he left his entire estate, against the singer’s two elder children, who were disinherited.

On Thursday, the tribunal at Nanterre outside Paris was asked to determine who holds the “moral right” to Hallyday’s body of work and particularly an album he was working on when he died.

At the heart of what is set to be a long-drawn out dispute, is whether Hallyday’s last will, drawn up in America, is valid or whether his estate falls under much stricter French inheritance laws; is he French, for tax purposes, or American.

When Hallyday, known as the French Elvis, died aged 74 in December after being treated for lung cancer, there was little doubt France was honouring one of its own.

The country was engulfed by a wave of grief for a man who sang in French to an overwhelmingly French audience, and who died in France before being buried on the French West Indian island of Saint Barthélemy.

That Hallyday’s father was Belgian and that he chose to bring up his youngest children in Los Angeles was not mentioned at the funeral, an occasion of national pomp and ceremony attended by French politicians, pop stars and President Emmanuel Macron. An estimated million fans turned out in the streets to pay tribute to the star.

The public show of family unity lasted as long as it took to open and read his will. The document, written in English, made Laeticia his executor, and left everything to her and their two adopted children. He put the management of his global estate into a trust.

Hallyday’s elder children David Hallyday, from his marriage to the singer Sylvie Vartan, and Laura Smet, whose mother is the actor Nathalie Baye, were left nothing. The star reportedly declared he had made full and adequate provision for them while he was alive.

On Thursday, lawyers for the two plaintiffs said the two elder children were seeking to be involved in their father’s posthumous album to participate in its production and be kept informed of track titles, the album cover and work being done on it.

They were “exercising their rights as heirs” and requested a legal order giving the singer’s widow 48 hours to allow them access to the album or pay €10,000 for every day she failed to do so. They also sought a freeze on selling property or titles that are part of their father’s estate. However, French judges said they had no details of the trust or where it is registered.

The court has also been asked to examine the question of whether the Frenchman had the right to escape France’s inheritance laws, which do not allow children to be disinherited, by claiming to be resident in Los Angeles. Under French law, the star’s widow is entitled to 25% of his estate and each of his children an equal 18.75% part. His widow’s lawyers say the final will was drawn up under American laws allowing him to distribute his fortune entirely as he wished.

The case is being closely followed by the French tax authorities which stand to lose their part in the inheritance if the US will is deemed valid and binding.

Laeticia Hallyday, 42, became the fourth and final wife of Hallyday, who was 32 years her senior, in 1996 when she was 21. The couple adopted two children from Vietnam; Jade, 13, and Joy, nine.

Hallyday, who sold more than 110m records in a long career, owned a large home on the outskirts of Paris, where he died, a villa on the Caribbean island of St Barthélemy, and two properties in Los Angeles, where Jade and Joy attend school. Hallyday’s estate also includes the rights to more than 1,000 songs, and a collection of prestige cars and motorbikes.

Laeticia Hallyday has issued a statement threatening to sue anyone who insinuates the rocker was manipulated into changing his will and has warned she will not be cowed by “intimidation or insults”.

None of the protagonists attended the hearing on Thursday afternoon. Judges adjourned the case until 30 March for documents to be translated and examined.