In the following pages we look first at the basic rules concerning inheritance laws in France, and then as they apply to particular family circumstances.
In order to make it as easy as possible for you to access the guidance some of the information in each of these sections does repeat, so you need only go to to the section on 'Basic Rules', and then to that section most relevant to your circumstances.
Since August 2015 successions in France are governed by European Regulation n°650/20121, under which a single national law applies in relation to international successions.
The Regulation states that the law of succession that applies to a deceased is the country of their habitual place of residence, although they have the option via a Will to opt for the succession law of their nationality.
In Nov 2021 the French government passed a law that cuts across the rights under European law, and which is being investigated by the EU Commission. You read about it in our article New French Inhertance Law under EU Investigation.
There was also a ruling on the issue made by the European Court of Justice in Sept 2023, which you can read about at Court Rules on European Succession Regulation.
The law does not apply to French inheritance taxes, which are unaffected by this change.
You many also be interested in our related guide Death in France
2.1. Basic Rules of French Inheritance Law
In the following section we summarise the basic statutory rules that apply, which now operate within the context of European Regulations.
The inheritance laws discussed below are those that apply in an intestate inheritance, or in the absence of prior inheritance planning measures being taken.
Only that part of the estate belonging to the deceased is subject to inheritance laws, although it will depend on the nature of their marriage regime or contract.
The rules are as they apply to residents of France.
We review firstly inheritance laws as they apply to your spouse and your children, and then as they apply to other relatives.
2.1.1. Spouse and Children
The central point to grasp with French inheritance laws is that your children are specifically protected from being disenfranchised from your estate.
That part of your estate that is earmarked for your descendants is called la réserve; that part of your estate that is freely disposable is called the quotité disponible.
Accordingly, you cannot freely dispose of any part of la réserve, which must be held for your children. You are only free to dispose as you wish of the quotité disponible.
Somewhat bizarrely, a surviving spouse is not a protected heir, although, unless you take specific action to disinherit them, they are entitled to a minimum of 1/4 of your estate or 100% life use.
The amount of la réserve and the amount freely disposable will depend on the number of your children.
The following table illustrates the entitlement children of the deceased receive under la réserve and the amount freely disposable.
Table: La Réserve
|Spouse||1/4 of estate||3/4 of estate *|
|One Child||1/2 of estate||1/2 of estate|
|Two Children||2/3 of estate||1/3 of estate|
|Three Children||3/4 of estate||1/4 of estate|
*Only freely disposable in the absence of children, as they are protected heirs.
Thus, if you die leaving a surviving spouse and two children, the spouse will receive 1/4 of your estate and the children 2/3 of your estate, with the remaining 1/12th freely disposable, e.g. to your surviving spouse.
If you die leaving no surviving spouse and two children, the children will automatically be entitled to 2/3 of your estate, and you are free to dispose as you wish of 1/3 of your estate.
These rules apply in the absence of any inheritance planning steps having been taken, such as a French marriage contract, purchase en tontine, a will or gifts etc.
Accordingly, it is possible to increase the rights of the surviving spouse, but this requires that some prior inheritance planning steps are taken to bring it about.
2.1.2. Other Relatives
Your parents and other relatives are not protected heirs in the same manner as your children, so you can choose to disinherit any or all of them by making a will or a gift.
Nevertheless, in the absence of any inheritance planning being undertaken, they do retain some residual rights, as follows:
I. Ordinary Rights of Inheritance
If you do not have children who succeed you, and if you do not otherwise disinherit your relatives by will or gift, they have ordinary rights of inheritance, as follows:
Table: Ordinary Rights of Inheritance
|Father or Mother||1/4 of estate|
|Father and Mother||1/2 of estate|
|Brother and Sister||1/2 of estate|
Thus, if you die leaving no surviving spouse or children, but one of your parents is still alive then, in the absence of inheritance planning measures having been taken by you, they will be entitled to 1/4 of your estate. If you leave two parents alive their entitlement is 1/2 of your estate.
In the absence of any parents still alive, your brothers and sisters (or their children if they are deceased) have an entitlement.
Where both parents and brothers and sisters are still alive then, in the absence of inheritance planning measures having been taken, the parents and brothers and sisters will each inherit 1/2 of your estate.
II. Right to Reclaim Gifts
In addition, whilst parents, brothers and sisters may not be protected heirs, in the absence of inheritance planning measures being taken, they have the right to reclaim gifts made to the deceased during their lifetime or by inheritance.
Thus, parents who made a gift to one of their children, who dies leaving no children, have the right to half the value of the gift.
Similarly, brothers and sisters have a right to half of a gift made by their ascendants to the deceased.
This rule applies up to the value of the amount of their legal entitlement in an inheritance, e.g. half of an intestate estate.
The definition of 'gifts' could included anything, from jewellery, a car, or even real estate.
The rule is called the droit de retour, with the law referring to: les biens que le défunt avait reçus de ses ascendants par succession ou donation et qui se retrouvent en nature dans la succession.
It is possible to avoid this rule by a relevant clause in a gift, or in a will or marriage contract.
III. Family Heirlooms
There are special rules that apply to family heirlooms.
In the event that the deceased leaves family heirlooms (called biens de famille) and, in the absence of inheritance planning measures being taken, the brothers and sisters (or their descendants) of the deceased have the right to claim 1/2 of the heirlooms. A surviving spouse receives the remainder.
‘Family heirlooms’ are defined as those having been transmitted to the deceased from the parents, either by way of gift or inheritance.
It could include anything from jewellery, a car, or even real estate if you inherited a property from your parents.
Where the deceased leaves only the family heirlooms then a surviving spouse is entitled to all of them.
Next: Surviving Spouse
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