Inheritance law in France is strict and places emphasis on continuity of succession. Legal priority is given to protected heirs or héritiers réservataires. This means the children of the deceased and can include a surviving spouse to a certain extent.
Other relatives or unmarried partners are not protected heirs. Our expert guide – along with Quick Facts & Tips - covers the main points for buyers and owners of property in France.
Guide to Succession Law in France
In England, you can usually leave your possessions to whomever you choose. In France, your Will might be overturned by your héritiers réservataires (protected heirs – most often your children). Your surviving spouse is a protected heir to a certain extent. Other relatives or unmarried partners are not protected heirs. You cannot always leave your French estate to your surviving spouse, unmarried partner or other chosen beneficiary.<
Marital property rights
Marital property rights are a complex matter. A matrimonial contract will affect the way their property is owned. There are different types of contract.
1. Separation of property (séparation des biens)
Under this system, any asset registered in one spouse’s name is considered to be owned by that spouse. Any assets registered in joint names are considered to be owned equally. If a couple is married in England (or in most other common-law countries such as the United States), on the death of one spouse, the protected heirs can claim:
- All assets registered in the name of the deceased spouse
- 50 per cent of the assets registered in joint names.
2. Universal community (communauté universelle)
This system involves all of the assets belonging to the couple being placed in joint or community ownership. A British married couple can enter into such a contract. They may also choose to include a special clause (clause d’attribution intégrale au conjoint survivant) which allows all the assets to pass on the first death to the surviving spouse without the payment of French inheritance taxes, thus effectively avoiding French succession law.
Joint ownership of property
There are two ways jointly to own French property:
- Ownership en indivision (tenancy in common) - you each own your half (or other percentage) of the house, which on your death is divided according to French succession law. In other words, the protected heirs (children or parents) have rights over and above the surviving spouse against the deceased’s share. Furthermore, under French law, any person owning a part share en indivision can force a sale on the other part-owners, or ask to be bought out.
- Ownership en tontine (similar to a joint tenancy under English law) - under a tontine, the surviving spouse is deemed to have owned all the property from the beginning and takes it all. This clause can only be inserted at the time of purchase. It cannot be added in afterwards. The survivor then has complete freedom to sell the property as he or she wishes.
However the sale of a property when both parties to the tontine clause are alive is only possible if both consent; if one declines to sell, the other cannot force the sale.
On the death of the first spouse, no French inheritance tax is payable if the property does not exceed €126,000 in value. Otherwise inheritance tax is payable as usual.
Unmarried couples may also experience problems. Most unmarried couples are exposed to French inheritance tax at the highest rate of 60% with a tax-free allowance of just €1,500 in accordance with the law on gifts to non-relatives.
A recent development in French law is the Pacte Civile de Solidarité, the so-called PACS. This affects the way non-married couples in a stable relationship can own their property, e.g. they will be allowed to succeed to a tenancy in the name of the partner where that partner dies or deserts the home. Only French residents or French nationals can complete a PACS.
Depending upon your wishes it may be advisable to make a Will to dispose of your French assets. A valid Will cannot override the rights of the héritiers réservataires but can override the rights of other heirs (including a surviving spouse). It is usually advisable to have two wills if you have possessions in the UK and in France. Prettys Solicitors would be happy to advise you and draft a French Will for you.
* This article was adapted and used with permission from Prettys Solicitors and is intended as a guide only. You can find more information on their website. Information relating to individual circumstances should besought by contacting Prettys solicitors direct and mentioning you have seen this article on French Connections.