FOR MEMBERS

Wills, estates and notaires – what you need to know about French inheritance law

Wills, estates and notaires - what you need to know about French inheritance law
Like all the best things, even a good life in France has to end. Photo: Jenny Downing | CC BY 2.0
It's unfortunately just a myth that French cheese and good wine makes you immortal - death comes for us all and if you are a foreign national it can make your legal affairs complicated. Here's what you need to know in order to protect your loved ones when you are gone.

France’s inheritance laws are substantially different and generally more rigid than those in many English-speaking countries – notably its strict rules forbidding people from disinheriting their children – so non-French people or those with assets in several countries need to be aware of some common pitfalls.

We turned to French legal expert Christophe Dutertre, of France Tax Law, for his advice with some of the most frequently asked question about French inheritance laws and Wills.

Do I need to make a new Will when I move to France?

An EU regulation means all non-French residents in France can opt for the law of the country of their nationality to apply to their estate, and this law still applies to Britons, despite Brexit, so it may not be necessary to make an entire new Will.

But this decision has to be clearly expressed in any Will, otherwise – under the same EU regulation – the law of the country of the deceased’s last residence will apply to the entire estate.

So at a minimum you will need to add a codicil to your Will, stating that you want the law of your home country, not French law, to apply.

If you do decide to make a new Will in France, it’s better to get professional advice, since it’s not as simple as just leaving all your worldly possessions to whoever you like.

It’s possible to make two Wills – one for your assets in your home country and one for your assets in France – but this should not be done without professional advice to ensure that the two Wills are not in conflict with each other.

How can I make a new Will in France?

Any notaire can help you with this and there is a standard fee of €136 for a basic Will. You can also register your Will with a notaire – this is free if the notaire has prepared the Will – and that ensures that everything is in place for a smooth process for the family after the death.

What happens to an estate once a person has died in France?

If you die intestate (without having made a Will) and you are a resident of France then the French Civil Code will apply when your assets are being divided up.

Any children you have must receive a share of the estate and parents, in the absence of children, can also be heirs with the right of retention.

If you do have a Will, then your property is divided up according to your wishes – within certain limits (see below).

I live in another country and have a second home in France. Do I have to follow French inheritance law even if I don’t live in France?

If you have a Will and your main residence is in another country, your French property can usually be disposed of according to the law of that country, although as discussed above it is advisable to add a Codicil to your Will stipulating that you want your home country’s laws to apply.  

If there is no Will, it will be necessary to find out, in private international law, which law is applicable to the succession. This varies according to your home country, so for the avoidance of uncertainty, it’s best to make a Will.

My spouse/partner has died. What should I do now with regard to their Will?

If you have drawn up a French Will and it has been registered, there is nothing to do other than to make an appointment with your notaire to open the estate. 

The civil law notaire will check the central file of Wills in order to find out whether the deceased left a Will. The formalities will follow when the estate is settled.

A non-French Will is more complicated as it will have to be translated and it will usually be necessary to wait for the Probate formalities in the home country before being able to settle any French succession.

Under French inheritance law, can I leave my property to whoever I want?

That depends on whether you have any children. Under French law, children are guaranteed a share of the estate, so if you really don’t want to leave your assets to your kids, you might want to exercise your right to have your estate managed under your birth nation’s laws.

The laws on inheritance for children are strict – French rocker Johnny Hallyday’s heirs were involved in a very lengthy legal battle when he attempted to bypass his children in favour of his latest wife, and that’s despite him having lived in the USA for the last 20 years of his life.

The law enshrines the concept of héritiers réservataires, who cannot be cut out of the Will.

The share they must receive depends on the number of children. One child is entitled to half their deceased parent’s estate. Two children share two-thirds, and three or more share three-quarters. The rest of the estate can be passed on as you see fit.

The rules for stepchildren are more complicated. It is advisable, as it is in all situations, to discuss your personal situation with your notaire or legal expert.

If you don’t have children then you are free to leave your estate to whoever you please, and whether you have children or not there are no rules on how much or how little you leave to a spouse or partner.

Can I protect the rights of my spouse or partner?

If you’re a multi-millionaire rocker then there will be plenty of cash for everyone, but for those with a smaller estate, being obliged to leave up to three quarters of everything to the children can leave the surviving spouse or partner with very little.

Since property represents the bulk of most people’s assets, the family home can also end up divided between several owners.

However, this does not mean a surviving spouse is left homeless.

As well as being able to inherit at least part of the estate, giving them a say in any property sales, for example, they also have the right to remain in the family home – as long as it is the main residence – for the remainder of their lifetime.

They have to formally declare their intention to do so within a year of their spouse’s death and just in case people fall out in the aftermath of a death, it is wise to make a notaire aware of this declaration.

Note – this is general advice only, for specific questions on estate planning or Wills, please contact a legal expert. 

The Notaires de France website also offers useful advice in English, while a list of English-speaking notaires in France is available here.


Member comments

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.