French wills and inheritance: what if we die together with no executor?

John Kitching, a director of French Law Consultancy Limited, answers a reader query

If beneficiaries are not local neighbours and friends often assist

Reader Question: My wife and I live in France and do not have children. We have made a French will with our notaire with the survivor inheriting everything, but what would happen if we both died in an accident? Nieces and friends abroad would inherit – but should we appoint an executor? 

Under your will, you probably stated who inherits on the death of the surviving spouse. 

They would be the notaire’s contact point, and would approve the inheritance documents, the sale of assets, sign the mandat de vente to sell property, etc. 

The notaire takes the role of executor for administration of a French estate but relies on information from people close to the deceased. 

If beneficiaries are not local and able to assist, local neighbours and friends often liaise with the mairie, which helps collate information and hold keys. 

Read more: Why have French notaires said my husband’s UK will is not valid?

How does this work with a British couple?

Assuming you are British, if you hold UK assets, an executor would probably need to be appointed to get a grant of probate to obtain them. 

This would usually be an executor appointed by will, or if no executor, then the residuary beneficiary can be executor, but not the notaire. 

You could use a UK (eg. English) will to appoint an executor for that purpose. 

An English law executor can make decisions on behalf of the estate, sell assets, settle debts, and must sign inheritance paperwork. 

For the sale of UK assets the executor does not need to involve beneficiaries. 

For sale of French real estate, the notaire will usually want beneficiaries to approve and sign inheritance and sale documents and also power(s) of attorney if not signing in person. 

A French will can elect English law and appoint an executor; it could, alternatively, elect an exécuteur testamentaire under French law. 

Their role is more to do with conserving the estate, arranging inventories of assets, and ensuring the terms of the will are respected. 

They can be given wider powers if stated in the will, such as selling movable assets to settle urgent debts. Most French charities will act as such if they are a beneficiary.

Read more: Tips for making a will in France without a notaire