A person whose husband or wife dies in France has the right to continue living in their shared home until their own death, even if they are not the main beneficiaries mentioned in the will.
This is due to a law called the droit d’habitation viager.
The rights of the widow or widower vary depending on whether they were married to, had a Pacs or simply lived with their deceased partner.
It is important to note that the droit d’habitation viager does not apply if the deceased person’s will specifically stipulates that their surviving partner should not continue living in their property.
Protection for married couples
The droit d’habitation viager applies when the surviving partner is not the named inheritor of the deceased person’s property, but does live there. It offers them the opportunity to continue living in that property – although it only applies to main residences, not second or holiday homes.
The droit d’habitation viager is applicable either when the ownership of the property is shared between the couple, or owned only by the person who has died.
For 12 months after the death, the surviving spouse can stay free of charge in the couple's family home (furniture included).
This is an automatic right and there is no need to claim it.
If the widow/widower wishes to remain living in the property after that, they must declare their intention to the notaire in charge of the will.
There is no particular process for expressing this desire, but it is best to inform the notaire handling the deceased’s will, with a letter with recorded delivery and acknowledgement of receipt being the most fool-proof way of making the declaration official.
Your notaire will likely help you carry out this process.
Once this is confirmed, the widow/widower can continue living in the property until their death, without fear that the inheritors of the property can demand their eviction or sell the house from under them.
It is very important for the widow/widower to officially declare their intention to stay in the property to the notaire.
In a recent court ruling, a woman whose husband died was evicted from the flat they lived in together as she did not officially declare her desire to remain in the property.
The flat was left to the man’s children from a previous marriage.
The widow claimed that the fact that she chose to continue living in the property was proof enough of her intention to stay there.
But the top appeal court, the Cour de cassation, which has jurisdiction over all civil and criminal matters, ruled against her.
Protection for couples with a Pacs
The Pacte Civil de Solidarité (Pacs) is the French equivalent of a civil partnership. It serves to officialise a couple’s relationship and also affords them certain rights – some different and some similar to marriage.
If one member of a couple that is Pacsed dies and the surviving partner is not named as the beneficiary of their shared property, they also have the right to this one-year grace period to continue living in the home.
However, once that period is over, they cannot claim the droit d’habitation viager and continue living there until their own death, unless they become the main owners of the property.
Protection for couples who lived together (concubinage)
A person who lives with their partner but is not married or Pacsed to them is referred to as being in a concubinage in France.
For people in this situation, there is significantly less protection if one member of the couple dies and the surviving member is not the owner of the shared property or is not named in the deceased person's will as the main beneficiary of the property.
In these instances, the surviving partner does not have any right to remain living in the property and can be asked to leave immediately by those who inherit it.
Additionally, if the property is left to multiple people (including the surviving partner), then the immediate family relations will have greater rights.
For example, if John and Mary were living in a concubinage together in a property owned by John, and John leaves the home to his two children plus Mary, then, if John dies, the two children could, by rights, sell the house without Mary being able to do anything about it.
She could herself attempt to buy the property.
There is one contractual agreement that couples in a concubinage can take out to protect against situations like this, called a convention d’indivision.
This can be done through a notaire, and lasts for a minimum of five years, is renewable, and prohibits any sale of the property while it is in force. This will give the surviving partner more time to organise their living situation should one person die.