Home Finance Money Management Planning your wills and estates in Switzerland
Last update on January 20, 2020
Written by Danielle Richardson

Wills in Switzerland may vary from the system in your home country, so it’s important to understand how they work.

Those with estates in Switzerland will need to consider which of the three different types of Swiss wills they should choose.

Before you start, it could also be helpful to read our guide on inheritance taxes in Switzerland, to see how the country’s rules could affect your heirs.

This guide covers the following topics:

Wills and estates in Switzerland

In Switzerland, your estate is made up of your savings, any Swiss property you own, your Swiss pension and any other valuable personal possessions.

Inheritance tax must be paid by those who inherit your estate. The amount payable will depend on the value of what they’ve inherited, their relationship to the deceased, and which Swiss canton is governing the process.

Swiss heirs will also inherit any debt left by the deceased that’s still outstanding when they die.

Inheritance law in Switzerland

Switzerland follows forced heirship laws when it comes to inheritance tax.

This means that certain relatives cannot be disinherited – even if the deceased requests for this in their will.

Under these rules, spouses or registered partners inherit at least 50% of the estate, while children and grandchildren receive at least 75% of the remaining half.

Inheritance law on pensions in Switzerland

Inheritance law also applies to pensions. In some cases, spouses, registered same-sex partners and children may be eligible to receive a percentage of your Swiss pension if you pass away.

This is paid in the form of a survivor’s or orphan’s pension benefit.

Applicable foreign inheritance laws in Switzerland

Expats living in Switzerland can specify whether they want to use Swiss inheritance law or the laws of their homeland. It’s important to weigh up which rules will suit your situation the best.

It’s also worth checking whether your home country is on the list of Switzerland’s double tax treaties (link downloads a pdf).

With more than 50 countries currently signed up, it means foreign residents and Swiss residents abroad can avoid getting taxed by two different countries.

If someone dies without expressing this preference, then Swiss inheritance law will automatically apply.

Rejecting assets and contesting a will in Switzerland

Under forced heirship rules, statutory heirs can contest a Swiss will if they’re disinherited, or if they’re due to receive less than the statutory amount.

They may need a certificate of inheritance to do this; it proves a person’s right to inherit.

However, heirs can also disclaim an inheritance by signing an inheritance renunciation contract. This allows them to reject what they’ve inherited, and most commonly takes place if the deceased have left unpaid debts.

This must be done within three months of the date of death, otherwise it will be assumed that all heirs accept their inheritance.

Another alternative is a contract of succession, which allows a statutory heir to officially renounce their rights to inherit.

This is a contractual arrangement drawn up in the agreement of all heirs, which should be done under the guidance of a notary.

All parties to the contract must be above the age of 18, and any amendments or cancellations require the consent of all parties.

Inheritance law in Switzerland if there is no will

If no will has been left, the surviving spouse or registered partner will receive:

  • 50% of the estate if shared with children and/or grandchildren
  • 75% of the estate if shared with parents and siblings
  • 100% of the estate in any other case.

Live-in partners are not regarded as statutory heirs under Swiss inheritance laws, and won’t receive anything if their partner dies without a will. This is irrespective of how long they’ve lived together.

If there are no surviving relatives, and no Swiss will has been made, the estate will be passed to the Swiss state.

Unclaimed inheritance in Switzerland

An inheritance is deemed unclaimed if there are no heirs or it is rejected by all beneficiaries. In this case, the estate is passed to the Swiss state.

Gifts before death

It’s possible to make lifetime gifts, which involve donating parts of your estate while you’re still alive. The donations must not encroach on the portion of your estate that’s reserved under the forced heirship rules.

While lifetime gifts mean your heirs will be able to receive assets sooner, there isn’t usually any tax advantage to giving away parts of your estate early.

Donations are subject to Swiss gift tax, which is usually levied at the same rate as inheritance tax.

Any gifts made during the last five years of the deceased’s life will count towards the statutory heirs’ standard entitlements.

Wills in Switzerland

Swiss wills can be changed at any time, and expats can also have more than one will at the same time – a Swiss will, and one drawn up in their home country.

However, you must make sure that neither will revokes or negates the other one. For this reason, it’s best to consult with a notary or lawyer if you are thinking of having more than one will.

Types of wills in Switzerland

There are three types of Swiss wills, which can be submitted in different ways:

  • Holograph will: a handwritten Swiss will that is kept either by the testator or a notary
  • Public will: this is when a testator gives instructions for their Swiss will to a notary or official in front of two witnesses
  • Oral will: a verbal will, which is given to two witnesses. This is only made in special circumstances where there is an immediate threat of death.

How to write a will in Switzerland

Each type of will has different requirements that must be fulfilled when writing and submitting it.

Holographic will

A holographic Swiss will is a handwritten document which must be signed and dated. It can be kept at home, or given to a notary for a fee.

This type of Swiss will must contain:

  • a header stating ‘will’
  • your name, date of birth and place of birth
  • a statement that revokes any previous wills that have been made
  • instructions on how to distribute your estate – but this must bear in mind the Swiss rules of forced heirship
  • if applicable, instructions to set up a foundation to use your assets for a specific purpose
  • the names of any executors for your estate
  • details of the date and place where the will was written
  • your signature

You can find a template for a holographic Swiss will on the government’s website.

Notarial will

This is also known as a public will.

To make one, you must give your instructions to a notary in front of two witnesses. The notary will then draw up the will document, which must be signed by you and the witnesses.

The will will be placed in Switzerland’s Central Register of Wills.

You can find a list of Swiss notaries on the Federation of Swiss Notaries website (link in German).

Oral will

This type of will is only used in emergencies, when there is an immediate threat of death – such as in wartimes.

To make an oral will, you must speak the instructions for the will to two witnesses, who must put it in writing as soon as possible.

The witnesses must detail the date and place that the will was made, and explain the emergency circumstances.

The will must then be signed by the witnesses and sent to the court authorities, in order for the instructions to be carried out.

Executing a will and grant of probate in Switzerland

If the deceased has appointed an executor, it is their responsibility to support the heirs in managing and dividing the estate.

The executor will have immediate disposal over all assets, including accounts and real estate.

They must draw up a complete inventory of the estate as of the date of death, and pay off any outstanding debts and taxes.

Then, they must draw up the contract of division and, with the consent of all heirs, divide up the estate.

It would usually be wise for an executor to enlist the help of a lawyer or notary during this process.

For help finding a notary, see this list of Swiss international law firms, by city.

Getting your estate valued in Switzerland

If you’re planning your estate in Switzerland, if can be helpful to get a valuation of your assets – especially if you own real estate.

There are many English-speaking lawyers and civil engineers you can hire to take care of this process, and who will provide a financial statement.

The property valuation usually takes the current value of the property, and makes a projection of how it could look in future years.

Inheritance tax in Switzerland

Swiss inheritance tax is paid on the assets heirs receive in a will.

The rates you’ll pay vary from 0-50% depending on the canton, how close a relation you are to the deceased and the value of the inheritance.

Some cantons, such as Bern and Zurich, do not charge any inheritance tax to spouses, children or grandchildren.

Each canton also has its own set of allowances, which vary according to the relation of the heir.

Tips on planning your estate in Switzerland

  • Gifting parts of your estate before you die won’t usually reduce inheritance tax, but your heirs may benefit from getting an early inheritance.
  • It’s a good idea to get advice from a notary or tax advisor who specialises in Swiss inheritance tax, particularly if your circumstances are complicated.
  • It’s possible to grant power of attorney so someone can take care of your affairs if you are unable to take care of yourself. This must be detailed in writing, but it can be amended or revoked at any time.

Useful resources