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French supreme court rules out forced heirship in france

The rules around forced heirship in France have changed recently. The Succession Regulation No 650/2012 of the European Parliament saw a change in the way families would now inherit their estates. The question was raised in France as to whether or not the forced heirship would prevail over the regulation. Still, it has since been decided that the new law will take effect, removing forced heirship as the default inheritance law process.

What Is Forced Heirship?

Forced heirship is a mandatory legal stipulation that requires a portion of a deceased person's assets to be inherited by their heirs automatically. It has long been popular in France as the Napoleonic Code to ensure children inherit 50-75% of an estate. With this law in force, it makes it illegal to disinherit the deceased's children from the estate. This guarantees that children will be awarded some part, if not all, of the assets to be inherited. The law even discounts any statements in a will that would disinherit any children. If the heirs die before a parent, then the estate is to be inherited by any grandchildren.

What Are the Rules?

Like all laws, some rules and requirements exist within the forced heirship regulation. Although heirs are the default inheriters, they are not automatically entitled to their share of the deceased's estate. All heirs must meet at least one of the two following requirements to allow them to obtain their assets legally:  

  • The heirs must be under 24 to be legally entitled to a portion of the assets to be inherited.
  • If an heir is in poor mental or physical health and unable to take care of themselves, they are legally entitled to their portion of the assets at any age.

Can It Be Avoided?

Some exceptions can be made regarding who inherits assets in countries where a forced heirship law is in place. An heir can be ruled out of inheriting a portion of their parent's estate if they:

  • Threatened the deceased or forced them not to make a Will
  • Threatened or attempted to murder the deceased
  • Accused the deceased of a crime punishable by death that they did not commit
  • Were married under the age of 18 without parental consent
  • Are serving a life-long prison sentence themselves
  • Have not been in contact with the parent for 2 years or more (excl. military service)

Why France Has Changed Forced Heirship Rules

University professors specialising in International Private Law, notaires, and lawyers have debated the subject since 2012. In August 2021, it was determined by the French Constitutional Council that forced heirship laws in France would change. Thus, allowing children to contest a will, even if UK law has been applied to the deceased's estate. 

Brussels IV Ruling

In 2015, new EU Succession Regulations came into place, providing British expatriates an opportunity to avoid French succession laws. This was provided they state who they wish to inherit in their will. Forced heirship law will remain applicable for French nationals but no longer for expatriates. With over 5 million people from different nationalities living in France, the EU regulation is a tool that cannot be neglected when organising estate planning.

How French Inheritance Law Differs From Other Countries

Other countries and states have very different rules regarding inheritance. This can become an issue for children of French parents who have since left the country. In a real-life case, two men living in California died after organising their estate via a family trust. Their French heirs were to be entirely disinherited by Californian law. French law allows a French heir to claim the assets still located in France of a parent who no longer resided there. This is the inheritance that would have been granted to them under French law and that which they were otherwise denied by foreign succession law

What Did the Supreme Court Rule?

The French Supreme Court notably retained in their verdict that "a foreign law to which the rule of conflict of laws applies and which excludes forced heirship is not, in and of itself, contrary to French international public policy and may not be set aside unless its real application to the case in question leads to a situation that is inconsistent with the rules of French law that are deemed to be fundamental."

They also considered the durable establishment of the deceased in California and, most importantly, that the claimants were adults and not in a precarious situation or need. The conclusion of the Supreme Court confirmed the judgment, determining that there was no reason to disregard California law in favour of French law. 

The Supreme Court clearly considered the heirs' situation before disregarding force heirship and French international public policy. The question is, would the decision have been the same if the heirs were minors or in need?

Access French Legal Support

If you are an expatriate living in France or conducting business in the country, then you will benefit from the knowledge and experience of France Tax Law's Notarial Services. We have over 24 years of combined experience dealing with French law. We can provide advice to those working or living between both countries. Contact us today to learn more.

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