The longest recorded human lifespan is 122 years, 164 days. The record is held by Jeanne Calment, who lived in Arles, France. Born in 1875, Jeanne reportedly had an encounter with Vincent Van Gogh at her uncle's shop. She was the first person verified to have lived to 116 years.

When Jeanne was 90 years old, she had outlived her daughter and her grandson, and had no other heirs. She agreed to sell her apartment to a lawyer for a small lifetime annuity, retaining the right to live in the property until she died. The lawyer was then 47 years old. The monthly payment was 2,500 francs, about $433.

Unfortunately, the lawyer died of cancer at age 77 while Jeanne was still alive, so he never did get to occupy the apartment. His estate had to keep paying the annuity. The total annuity payments reportedly were double what the apartment was worth.

Possible fraud

Doubts have been raised about the authenticity of Jeanne's age, according to a recent item in Smithsonian.com. A new research paper has found several inconsistencies in her life story. For example, a passport issued to Jeanne in the 1930s describes an incorrect eye color and height. In an interview, Jeanne spoke of a maid who had accompanied her to school. In fact, that maid was ten years younger than Jeanne.

Jeanne had a daughter, Yvonne, who died in 1934. After Yvonne's death, Jeanne moved in with her son-in-law and grandson. The son-in-law never remarried, though he was only 42 when he was widowed.

The researchers believe that Yvonne did not die in 1934, her mother did. Yvonne then assumed her mother's identity, she became Jeanne Calment.

Why would she do it?

Jeanne and her husband owned a small shop together. When she died, under French law at that time her husband would have had to pay a 38% death tax on his wife's ownership share of the business. There would be no tax bill at all if Yvonne died instead of her mother.

Many doubt the researchers' theory, and there is no conclusive proof. Could an identity switch happen without friends and neighbors noticing it? If anyone did notice it, could the secret be kept by so many for so long? But it was a period of tumult in France and in the world. The story does have a certain plausibility.

Planning today

The threat of death taxes is much reduced for most Americans. The amount exempt from federal estate taxes is $11.4 million per person in 2019. However, the minority of states that continue to have inheritance or estate taxes typical impose them at much lower wealth levels.

Freedom from death tax does not mean freedom from estate planning. Providing a road map for the orderly disposition of one's property at death is a fundamental financial responsibility.

(January 2019)
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