Cross border wills and estates involving French property – what you need know

Melanie Christodoulou

Senior Associate

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October 19, 2022

Categories French Property

The EU Succession Regulation 650/2012 (also known as Brussels IV) has had a significant impact on the way that cross-border estates can be distributed on death.

English law (common law) provides for the concept of testamentary freedom: you can leave your estate assets to whomever you choose without the obligation to provide for close relatives.

That said, certain categories of person – including a surviving spouse, minor children, and someone who the deceased person was supporting at the time of his death – could bring a claim against the estate for inadequate financial provision, to argue that some benefit from the estate should be redirected towards themselves.

French law, like many other countries on the continent, is based on civil law, and for successions, the main principle is that children are protected heirs. Children are not to be disinherited completely and so they entitled to a reserved portion of the estate.

Many British couples who own a French property and who haven’t reviewed their wills after buying often find that following the death of the first of them, the property share is inherited by the surviving spouse and the children – even if their will provides for the surviving spouse to be the sole heir. For many, this may not turn out to be a problem, but for some it can be an unexpected and unwanted surprise.

Prior to the EU Succession Regulation, French succession law dictated how a property (immovable asset) in France would be distributed on death.

Now, with the EU Succession Regulation, it is possible to choose the law of your nationality to apply to the succession of your EU assets.

What does this mean for British nationals?

Well, it means you can choose English law, which has no restrictions, to determine who inherits your French assets.

We have dealt with many estate administrations in France where the death has occurred after the coming into application of the Regulation in August 2015, and where no such declaration has been made in a will.

In some cases, specific transitional provisions of the Regulation will imply a declaration in respect of a will made under British law, and allow English and Welsh, Scottish or Irish law to govern the French estate, but in others this will not be accepted in France (particularly for a will that pre-dates the date the Regulation was signed in 2012).

As a side note to this, a recent inheritance law was introduced in France on 1 November 2021 that tries to circumvent the EU Regulation by giving all children of the deceased a right to claim a portion of their parents estate, provided at the time of the parent’s death they, or their parent, are an EU National or reside in an EU member state.

Seeking professional advice on the most appropriate ownership structure at the time of buying the French property and the drafting of your will, will have a smooth pathway to achieving your objectives for the passing on of the property following your death.

For further information contact Melanie Christodoulou on 01227 763939