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Did World’s Oldest Woman Evade Both Death and Taxes?

Posted on Sep. 20, 2019

A team of gerontologists in France has challenged a report that a Frenchwoman acknowledged as having been the world’s oldest person assumed her dead mother’s identity to avoid inheritance tax. 

A woman who said she was Jeanne Calment died in Arles in 1997 at the age of 122 years, 164 days. Guinness World Records agreed, conferring on her the title of the world’s oldest person. Two Russian academics think differently. Valery Novoselov, a professor of genealogy and geriatrics at Moscow’s Peoples' Friendship University of Russia, and Nikolay Zak, a mathematician, published an article in the December 2018 edition of Rejuvenation Research saying that the woman claiming to be Calment was actually her daughter

In an interview in 2018, Novoselov said the closest supercentenarian in age was Sarah Knauss of Allentown, Pennsylvania, who died in 1999 when she was 119. “All other supercentenarians are several years apart from them,” he said. “Whenever a new record is set, the person dies several days or several weeks later, very rarely several months later. However, we are never speaking about years apart, definitely not several years.” 

Novoselov said that as a geriatrician, he relies heavily on visual assessments. “My eyes were telling me that Jeanne didn’t have the hallmarks of frailty that would correspond to her official age, such as the fact that unlike other supercentenarians, she was able to sit straight in her chair without others’ help,” he said. 

A passport issued in Calment’s name in the 1930s includes details about eye color and height that do not correspond with the woman’s features when she was old, Novoselov said. The apparent inconsistencies prompted him to hire Zak to analyze data sets on supercentenarians. “The models developed by him claimed that if we rely on the laws of statistics, Jeanne as a phenomenon should not exist,” Novoselov said. “It was such a big surprise to Nikolay that he decided to personally revalidate this case. His French is fairly good, so he reached out to the holders of the archives in Arles, found some volunteers there, and started to check every small detail.” 

Zak’s research led the pair to conclude that the claim that Calment’s daughter, Yvonne Billot-Calment, passed away in 1934 was false and that it was Jeanne Calment who had actually died that year, with Billot-Calment assuming her mother's identity. 

The motive was tax evasion, said Novoselov. “The 1930s were dire years for the family. [Jeanne Calment's] mother-in-law and her father both died in 1931, and the family had to pay huge inheritance taxes in each case. Unlike their levels at the beginning of the century, these taxes were up to 35 percent of the property’s cost, as the government was likely preparing for the next world war," he said. "If Jeanne had died, her daughter Yvonne and her husband would have [had] to pay a lot of money. However, if it were Yvonne who died, the family wouldn’t have to pay any taxes, as she didn’t own the homestead.” 

On September 16 a team of four French researchers published a rebuttal to the Russians’ claims in The Journals of Gerontology. The French team said Zak was negligent in failing to note that Jeanne Calment’s father, Nicolas Calment, had given all of his property to his children in 1926 in exchange for an annual life annuity of FRF 5,000. “The only financial consequence upon the death of Nicolas in 1931 is the extinction of the life annuity,” they said. 

The researchers also challenged another claim by Zak that an additional motive for Billot-Calment to assume her mother’s identity was an annuity contract presumably signed before 1934 and still in effect in 1997. “This second motive seems also to have no basis, as it is not reported in the declaration of assets that Jeanne made in 1946 on the occasion of the national solidarity tax in application of the Ordinance of August 15th, 1945,” they said. (The French researchers did not address the issue of whether Billot-Calment might have been trying to evade taxes in 1946 as well.) 

The French researchers said their mathematical models indicate that it was possible for a person to attain the age of 122 by the late 1990s. “We would like to stress the unacceptability of publishing an article with such unfounded accusations claiming that members of the Calment and Billot families collectively committed fraud,” they said. “How was it possible that a paper so full of unsubstantiated assertions could survive a responsible peer review and [be] subsequently published in Rejuvenation Research?” 

Le Figaro reported September 18 that after reviewing the French researchers’ report, the local prosecutor's office decided that Jeanne Calment's death certificate would not be amended. In support of that decision, the prosecutor cited "the use of certain non-scientific bibliographical publications, the absence of reference to the scientific literature on key arguments, or the setting up of scientific experiments without any serious methodological guarantee," Le Figaro said.

Marc Bornhauser, a tax lawyer with Cabinet Bornhauser in Paris, said that if identity fraud was committed, he doubts that it involved taxes. “I suspect it was more a question of civil fraud because Jeanne Calment sold her household while keeping the right to stay inside until the end of her life,” he said. “To die so young would have made the sale a very bad thing for the family and a very good affair for the purchaser. Indeed, [the purchaser] died before the official Jeanne Calment.” 

Bornhauser added that if it turns out that identity fraud did occur, the statute of limitations would preclude any possibility of prosecution.

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