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2. French Inheritance Laws

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.

In August 2015 new European regulations came into effect allowing EU citizens to choose whether the law applicable to their succession (but not inheritance taxes) should be that of their place of habitual residence or that of their nationality. We shall update this guide in due course to take account of this significant change, although those aspects relating French inheritance law per se contained in the guide remain in place.

  1. Basic Rules
  2. Surviving Spouse
  3. No Surviving Spouse
  4. Civil Partnership
  5. Free Union
  6. Divorcing Couples

2.1. Basic Rules of French Inheritance Law

In the following section we summarise the basic statutory rules that apply in French inheritance law.

Three key points at the outset:

  • If you are resident in France these rules will apply to all your worldwide assets, save for real estate held abroad; if you are not French resident, they will apply to all real estate you own in France.
  • 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, so in the case of a married couple, it will normally be 50% of their joint wealth.

We review firstly inheritance laws as they apply to your spouse and your children, and then as they apply to other relatives.

  1. Spouse and Children
  2. 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.

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

Inheritors Réserve Freely Disposable
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 Relative Entitlement
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 may not be protected heirs, in the absence of inheritance planning measures being taken, they have the right to reclaim gifts made to their deceased children during their lifetime.

This rule applies up to the value of the amount of their legal entitlement in an inheritance, e.g. half of an intestate estate where there remains both parents still alive.

The definition of 'gifts' could included anything, from jewellery, a car, or even real estate.

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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