French inheritance law

When does French inheritance law and tax apply to your assets?

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When does French inheritance law and French inheritance tax apply to your assets? This guide explains French inheritance rates, how to write a French will, plus new inheritance laws for non-residents and foreigners.

Once you become an official resident, retire in France or buy French property, you will need to consider if French inheritance law and French inheritance tax apply to your assets. In some cases foreigners and non-residents can choose the law of their country of nationality to apply, although there can still be some restrictions on how you can divide France-based assets under French succession law.

Wondering what happens if you die in France is not typically at the forefront of expats' minds while occupied with building a new life. However, as French inheritance laws are markedly different to the legal norm in most English-speaking countries, some expats are left unprepared when they ‘disappear’, as the French say.

This guide explains the rules of French inheritance law and whether inheritance tax in France applies, plus details whether you should make a French will and information on how to prepare one.

Find out more on French inheritance laws, taxes and wills:

Inheritance law in France

French inheritance law derives from the French Civil Code. France operates a residence-based system regarding inheritance law, meaning that French inheritance law applies to all French residents regardless of nationality.

Contrary to laws in most English-speaking countries – typically allowing assets to be left to anyone you choose and, if there is no will, spouses inherit over children – French inheritance laws protect the ‘direct line of descent’, that is, children, grandchildren and parents. Traditionally the intent was to protect the family, for example, to stop an unscrupulous outsider from coercing an elderly person to disinherit family members, although more than half die without a valid will.

The bulk of the France's inheritance code previously dated to 1804, although it has been significantly updated over the last 15 years to become more flexible and provide spouses more rights, whom previously had almost none.

The most recent French inheritance law changes in 2015 (under EU reforms applicable since 17 August 2015) add more flexibility to the inheritance system. The reforms now mean that if a person has their principle residence in France, then French inheritance law applies to their whole estate, including real estate owned abroad. However, foreign residents are now also given the option to have their estate handled according to the laws of their home country instead of French inheritance law and taxes. The 2015 reforms aim to simplify procedures, as previously those with real estate in countries other than where they lived would often have their estates dealt with by dual (or multiple) inheritance laws.

French inheritance tax

French inheritance law restrictions

French inheritance law is restrictive and 'forced heirship' applies to children. This means that, irrespective of the specifications of a will, a certain proportion of the deceased's estate (called the 'reserve') must be set aside for children, or the spouse if there are no children. The remainder can be distributed freely according to a French will.

Children can renounce their right to a French inheritance, if done in the presence of two notaries. However, this cannot be revoked after the death of the parent.

Under inheritance law in France, the amount that needs to be set aside as the 'reserve' is as follows:

  • If there is one child, they receive 50 percent of the estate.
  • If there are two children, they receive 66.6 percent of the estate between them.
  • If there are three or more children, they receive 75 percent of the estate between them.
  • If there are no children, then the spouse is entitled to 25 percent of the estate.


According to French inheritance laws, a couple needs to be married at the time of death for the spouse to be legally entitled to their share as part of the 'reserve'. If in an unmarried partnership, a civil union or divorced in France, the surviving spouse will have no predetermined legal right to a share of the estate. However, a recent change in French inheritance law now grants survivors in civil partnerships the right to reside in the family home for up to one year after the partner's death.

The rights of the spouse under French inheritance law depend on the 'marital regime' chosen by the couple when married in France:

  • If the marital regime is en indivision (property purchased during the marriage is co-owned) then a surviving spouse retains their 50 percent share and the remainder forms part of the deceased's estate and is subject to 'forced heirship' rules.
  • If the couple opt for communaute universelle marriage, any jointly owned property is considered 'community property'. This means that the surviving spouse is the sole surviving owner and 'forced heirship' doesn't apply, unless the deceased has children from a previous marriage.
  • Another option is to purchase property in France en tontine, which means that the whole property is transferred to the surviving partner.


Beyond the above French inheritance restrictions, a person can leave the remainder of their estate to whomever they wish by writing a French will.

French succession law if there is no will

If a person dies without leaving a will, then French rules of intestacy apply. This means that the estate is divided between surviving children and spouse accordingly. The spouse can choose either outright ownership of their share (minimum 25 percent) or 'life interest' in the French property (the right to use it throughout their lifetime). In these cases, ownership of the whole estate is divided between the children.

A spouse's use, rental and enjoyment of the estate (usufruct) doesn’t mean they can touch liquid assets belonging to the children, however, they are permitted to live in the family house until their death when any children would inherit it outright. Although, a judge might intervene if adult children wouldn’t get their inheritance for too long a time. If the children are minors, the surviving spouse must apply to a court to sell any assets or administer the childrens’ share.

While largely a formality, a spouse may have to communicate with a judge to demonstrate they haven’t absconded with the children’s inheritance. A judge may also prohibit the guardian of the children to use their inheritance to pay for care, meaning parents might be forced to borrow money to cover their family’s finances while investing childrens’ inheritance until they became adults.

In cases where children have died and are survived by grandchildren, French inheritance law allows grandchildren to inherit the same rights. If there are no children or grandchildren, then the deceased's parents are entitled to 25 percent of the estate each, with the remainder going to the spouse. In cases of civil partnership, cohabitation and divorce, the surviving partner or ex-spouse has no entitlement to the estate of the deceased unless a will stipulates otherwise.

If there are no children, grandchildren or spouse, the order of succession is:

  • parents (25 percent each)
  • siblings
  • nieces and nephews
  • grandparents
  • uncles and aunts
  • cousins.

French property inheritance laws

Once you are an official resident in France, all your assets worldwide can be subject to French inheritance law – except real estate owned elsewhere. Foreign real estate is generally governed by the inheritance laws of that particular country, unless stated otherwise via a will.

French property law recognises ownership according to named person on the title deeds; this means you need to register your property after buying a house in France to have it included as part of your estate. Details on registering a property can be found here. With property jointly owned by a married couple, they must decide whether the property is co-owned (50 percent share each) or under community property (where the surviving spouse maintains ownership of the entire property).

If a child aged under 18 inherits property in France, French inheritance law states that no debts must be pending on the property (including mortgage reimbursements).

Inheritance tax France

New French inheritance laws for non-residents and foreigners

A change in EU rules on cross-border successions came into effect in August 2015 which means EU citizens can now choose whether the laws of their country of residence or their country of nationality apply to their estate upon their death. This applies even if you are a non-EU citizen. However, the rules don't apply in Denmark, Ireland the UK as these countries opted out, although they will apply to nationals of these countries if they live elsewhere in the EU.

If you are an expat living in France with EU citizenship and want the inheritance laws of your country of nationality to apply rather than French inheritance law, you need to express this clearly in a will or separate declaration. These laws will then apply as long as they don't contravene local public policy (eg. discrimination of heirs based on gender or whether born out of wedlock).

The EU rules do not apply to the following matters linked to your inheritance:

  • inheritance taxes
  • your civil status
  • the property regime of your marriage/partnership (how your property should be divided after the death of your spouse/partner)
  • matters concerning companies.

French inheritance tax

If inheritance law in France applies to your estate, then French inheritance tax will be levied on all worldwide assets if you are a French resident, or on assets only located in France if you are a non-resident.

In some cases, this can lead to situations of double taxation (where assets are liable to tax in two different countries). France has tax treaties with several countries, including the UK and the US, to avoid double taxation. A list of French tax treaties is available here and instructions on applying for an agreement. Read more about taxes in France and how to file a French tax return.

French inheritance tax rates

French inheritance tax rates depend on the relationship status to the deceased. Inheritance tax is partly why the French are concerned with carrying life insurance, or assurance décès, particularly if inheritance will go to a non-blood or distant relative. You can take out multiple policies for various family members, your children, a friend or a lover.

Current French inheritance tax rates and allowances are below.

Spouses

Married couples and those in civil partnerships are now exempt from paying inheritance tax in France.

Parents, children and grandchildren

  • Tax free allowance: EUR 100,000
  • 5 percent tax up to EUR 8,072
  • 10 percent on EUR 8,072–12,109
  • 15 percent on EUR 12,109–15,932
  • 20 percent on EUR 15,932–552,324
  • 30 percent on EUR 552,324–902,838
  • 40 percent on EUR 902,838–1,805,677
  • 45 percent on over EUR 1,805,677.


Brothers and sisters

  • Tax free allowance: EUR 15,932
  • 35 percent tax up to EUR 24,430
  • 45 percent on more than 24,430.


Other relatives up to the 4th degree

  • Tax free allowance: EUR 7,967
  • 55 percent flat rate tax.


Remote relatives and other beneficiaries

  • Tax free allowance: EUR 1,594 (EUR 159,325 if disabled)
  • 60 percent flat rate tax.

Gifts under French inheritance law

Assets that are given as gifts during someone's lifetime are subject to similar rates to French inheritance tax rates, and are offset by similar allowances. The main difference is that there is no exemption from gift tax between spouses/partners, although the tax allowance on gifts between spouses/partners is EUR 80,724.

Tax-free gifts up to the designated tax allowance can be made once every 15 years. Also, the 15-year period needs to have expired for the gift to be excluded from the estate of the person giving the gift. In other words, if you gift someone an asset within the tax-free allowance and then die before the 15 year period has passed, it will be added to the value of your estate for French inheritance tax calculations, plus some other tax costs may be incurred.

Under French inheritance laws, you cannot gift away the part of your estate that is the 'reserve'.

Inheritance in French

 

French wills

French inheritance law recognises wills that have been drawn up in other countries as long as they conform to the legal standards of that country. This means that foreigners living in France are not obliged to draw up a French will. You might consider writing a French will, however, if you plan to choose French inheritance law or to have a French-language will.

If you are a foreign resident in France and haven't stipulated in any will that you want the laws of your country of nationality to apply, French inheritance law will automatically apply. Even if an international will, if you leave proportions of your estate that encroach upon the 'reserve' that has to go to recognised heirs, these amounts will have to be reduced.

There are three types of will in France:

  • Holographic will (testament olographe) – a basic French will that requires no formality.
  • Authentic will (testament authentique) – a French will that is made in the presence of a notary and signed by witnesses.
  • Mystic will – secret will sealed in an envelope.


It is possible to change or revoke a French will at any time. Creating a new will automatically nullifies the existing will. If you want to revoke a French will, you can simply destroy it if it's a holographic will. With other wills, a declaration needs to be made in the presence of a notary.

It is permissible to have two wills – a French will and one drawn up in your home country – as long as one doesn't accidentally revoke or negate the other. It is best to consult with a solicitor first if you are thinking of doing this.

Making a will in France

If you want to make a will in France, you can write one up yourself or you can get one prepared by a notary. The cost for the latter is around EUR 150–200 (find an official list of notaries here). If you are writing a French will yourself, the process will depend on which type of will you are preparing.

Under French inheritance law, there is no requirement for an executor to be appointed in a French will. A testator can appoint an executor or a notary to administer the will, but if none are appointed then the beneficiaries of the will administer the estate themselves. If a conflict arises, then the matter is referred to the French 'Tribunal de Grande Instance' court closest to the location of the estate.

You can write your will in English, or another language, under an ‘international will’ introduced in 1994 for foreigners and French citizens living abroad.

French inheritances must be dealt with, all goods transferred and all inheritance tax in France paid within six months of the date of death. 

Holographic French will

This is the easiest type of French will to prepare, although it's also the easiest type to challenge the validity of if it hasn't been drawn up correctly.

Holographic wills should be prepared as follows:

  • The location and date of preparation should be clearly stated
  • It should be handwritten in black ink on plain white paper
  • It should be signed and each page numbered and initialled
  • It should begin with the words 'This is my will' and then state the testator's name
  • The full names, addresses and relation to the testator for all of the beneficiaries should be clearly stated
  • Everything written needs to be clear and unambiguous
  • Details of executors and notaries (if chosen) should be included
  • It can be written in any language.


Holographic wills can be kept by the testator, a nominated person or filed at a bank or with a notary. It can also be registered by the Fichier Central des Dispositions de Dernieres Volontes (FCDDV).

Authentic French will

This is the most legally secure French will as it must be filed with the FCDDV by a notary. However, the notary will charge a fee. The process involves dictation by the testator, which is typed out by a notary. It is then signed by the testator and two witnesses in the presence of the notary.

Mystic French will

This is a secret French will where the contents remain unknown until death. It is written or typed by the testator, then signed and sealed in an envelope in the presence of a notary and two witnesses. The notary then creates a mark of registration on the sealed envelope.

France's inheritance laws have changed significantly over the years but foreigners who assume French inheritance laws mimic those back home could be caught out: French laws are probably still quite different and the best way to protect your assets in France and abroad is to consult a notaire and, in some cases, make a French will.

Does a French will make a difference?

While French inheritance law still protects certain members of your family, a will can still make a difference.

  • A will can allow you to leave a ‘donation’, that is, a specific asset, animal or a sum of money, to a spouse, partner, child, friend or association.
  • A will allows you to specify that one or more of your heirs receive their inheritance over time instead of in a bulk sum.
  • A will can appoint guardians of minor children, including guardians living outside France. Without a will, the judge will appoint guardianship to your surviving parents.
  • A will allows you to detail funeral or cremation arrangements.

French inheritance advice

With numerous aspects and changes to French inheritance law, it is important to seek professional advice for your individual situation. Certain allowances have been gradually been added to French inheritance law which can be of benefit, for example:

  • the heirs of a property don't need to agree unanimously to administer the estate, for example, a decision to rent out an inherited property; the sale of an inherited property still requires unanimous agreement among the heirs.
  • a marriage contract, régime de marriage, can be changed without court approval with the consent of adult children (except in the presence of minor children). Such changes are sometimes made to change a spouse’s status in terms of legal claim to the estate.

Inheritance vocabulary in French

  • Inheritance in French: les héritage
  • Inheritance tax: le impôt de succession
  • Inheritance law: loi sur les successions  

French inheritance contacts

 

Click to the top of our guide to when does French inheritance law and tax apply to your assets?


Expatica

Updated 2017.

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1 Comment To This Article

  • Martin posted:

    on 22nd September 2011, 08:45:51 - Reply

    Hi guys, my brother died recently in France, He was an expat who was single, had no will and no estate to speak of (he was a pub-singer who lived from hand-to-mouth). He has no children and his only relatives are two sisters, his mother and me (his brother). Can you help please with what is the French state will/can do in terms of benefits in this case eg funeral expenses, outstanding bills eg rent, gas and electricity? Also what does his employment insurance cover (French equivalent of NI)? How to get access to his bank accounts etc (French equivalent of probate)?.