Families face stress over new French inheritance law and foreign wills

A French lawyer tells of surviving family members worrying about hardship and court battles

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Lawyers expect a legal challenge to a new inheritance law that seeks to enforce French rules giving a set portion of any inheritance to children.

This applies when a foreign inheritance law has been chosen in a will and could therefore bypass what France sees as ‘reserved heir’ children.

It may also come into play where an owner of French property dies resident outside France.

A ruling could be many years away, said English-speaking notaire François Trémosa.

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In the meantime, notaires and families are dealing with “an additional complication in a situation – someone’s death – which is already difficult”, he said.

Standard French law rules include set ‘reserved portions’ for biological children which were traditionally applied to the estate of residents in France or to the French real estate of non-residents.

New French law clashes with EU regulation

Since 2015, France respected an EU regulation saying the law of the country of the deceased’s last residence applies to the whole estate, or that of their nationality if they stated this in a will.

This has allowed English people, for example, to choose flexible English law.

Now, a 2021 law, seemingly clashing with the EU regulation, says that where a foreign law system is to apply to an estate involving French property and the system does not have forced heirship rules, the notaire should contact any children, saying they have a right to be compensated out of the value of any estate in France.

This would be up to the level of the French reserved portion, as calculated against the worldwide estate.

The children do not, however, have to opt to claim this.

‘There will be court cases’

The law applies to inheritance proceedings started since November 1, 2021, where the deceased, or at least one child, lived in the EU or was an EU citizen.

Mr Trémosa, of Trémosa-Leschelle et Associés, based near Toulouse, said where heirs named in a will and the children do not agree amicably, there will be court cases.

Eventually, he expects to see a case referred to the European Court of Justice or France’s Conseil constitutionnel.

Hardship worries for survivors

He is dealing with a case where a resident in France left her estate – all in France – to god-children in the UK and US, not her British son in the US. Under French rules, the son is entitled to half.

The situation is “very tense”, though the parties are “communicating”, he said.

In another case a reader from the south-west has told her stepsons of their rights to two-thirds of her dead husband’s estate, but worries she will face hardship if they opt for this because she and her husband had wanted to leave everything to each other.

She had planned to help the stepsons in her own will. In such situations, certain traditional French mechanisms can help protect a survivor but must be planned in advance.

The European Commission is examining the legality of the French law.

For more about inheritance / care homes / and the formalities following a death in France, see our help guide to Inheritance Law and Wills in France, (priced €14.50)

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