A brief precis of French Succession Law
Few countries in the world can be geographically so close as the
United Kingdom and France, and yet remain so different. For example,
French property and succession law is based on a ‘civil
law’ system, which is quite unlike the ‘common law’
systems which operate in the United Kingdom and in many other
English-speaking countries throughout the world.
You should consider yourself and your French property matters to be
unique. Please therefore listen to, but never rely on the anecdotal or
other general advice – however well intentioned it may be
– given by friends or others who already own or are in the
process of buying property in France, either as a holiday home or as a
main residence. By oversimplifying matters, the solutions implemented
by other people do not always dovetail with your requirements. It is
also dangerous to believe what you read in books etc. which can be a
useful source of general information, but can also be misleading.
At the risk perhaps of sounding self-serving, it is our experience
that no-one should seek advice about French legal and/or tax matters
purely on the advice of a notaire or an estate agent, without
having the documentation looked at by bilingual specialists like
ourselves who have knowledge and experience not only of the French and
United Kingdom legal systems but, more importantly, how they interact
and sometimes conflict with each other.
Practice shows that most notaries do not advise on any of the
legal/tax consequences of cross-border issues. If they do advise at
all it is not unusual to see a notaire suggesting a French
solution which may impact badly on the clients’ position in his
home country. In the same way, for example, an English solution
proposed by an inexperienced English lawyer to a French legal problem
is not usually appropriate, and can instead be damaging to the client.
Whatever your personal circumstances, it is usually vital that you get
proper independent legal advice (click here) before you enter into a
legally binding commitment to buy property in France. Afterwards it
may be too late.
1. French succession law and French inheritance tax
‘Property’ in France can either mean
‘immeubles (realty) or meubles
(personalty). Immeubles mainly consist of land and buildings
located in France. Meubles include household furniture, bank
accounts, shares in a company or other movable assets.
Immeubles are always governed by French succession law and are
also subject to French inheritance tax (‘French IHT’),
regardless of your nationality, residence or place of domicile (French
meaning) when you die. French or other meubles held by a person
who is domiciled outside of France are not subject to French
succession law. For example, if you die domiciled in England, these
assets are governed by English succession law. But if you die
domiciled in France, French succession law and French IHT do not only
apply to your French immeubles. They also apply to all your
meubles in France and to any other personalty you may own in any
other country throughout the world. Any realty you may own outside of
France will not usually be governed by French succession law and
Unless you plan your affairs carefully now, French succession law
and/or French IHT can cause the following (and possibly other)
You cannot always leave your French estate to your surviving
spouse, unmarried partner or other chosen beneficiary. If you
leave children they have absolute protected rights over all or
part of your French estate. ‘Children’ means any
child (regardless of their age) by an existing or previous
marriage or relationship. If a child predeceases you, his or her
issue (your grandchildren), will instead inherit, regardless of
their age. It does not matter what your English or other Will
says. These and other provisions of French succession law
override any contrary provisions you may have made.
It is not always possible to disinherit one or more of your
If any of your children or other descendants are minors (below
18 years of age) when you die, the sale or other disposal of
your French immeubles must usually be postponed until the
youngest of any minor children reaches the age of 18.
In some cases full ownership of your French estate can be taken
(in descending order) by your surviving parents, brothers and
sisters, nephews and nieces, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and
cousins. If you leave no relatives the French State takes all of
your French estate.
Executors have very limited powers to administer a French
estate, even for the benefit of minors.
French IHT is payable between spouses.
Most unmarried couples are exposed to French IHT at the highest
rate of 60% of the net value of their inheritance.
French IHT allowances are not generous.
If you are a resident of a country which (unlike the United
Kingdom) does not have a suitable double tax treaty with France,
you may have to pay one or more special taxes in addition to
Some cases require complex and expensive solutions. However, in many
cases complexity can be avoided, and a much simpler and cheaper
alternative solution can be found that dovetails neatly with your
2. Ways in which French immeubles can be owned
The second aspect to understand from the outset is the way in which
French immeubles can be owned. There are basically three
Direct ownership in the name of one individual
It may sometimes make sense to place your French
immeubles in the sole ownership of one single person.
Direct ownership in the name of two or more individuals
In England, immoveable property can either be jointly owned
‘legally’ (e.g. via a ‘joint tenancy’
or a ‘tenancy in common’) or as an
‘equitable interest’ (e.g. via a trust).
In France, by contrast, trusts are not recognized.
Therefore, of the two remaining principal methods of joint
ownership available, ownership ‘en
indivision’ produces approximately the same results
as an English tenancy in common. For a variety of reasons,
indivision ownership should usually be avoided by all
buyers of French immeubles as their chosen method of
The other method of joint ownership (known as
‘tontine’) is similar to English property
held under a joint tenancy in that – unlike
indivision – on the death of one tontinier,
ownership immediately passes to the surviving
As with indivision ownership, tontine
ownership comes with potential legal and/or French IHT
problems of its own, particularly if the owners are not
married to each other.
Indirect ownership in the name of a company
Purchasing French immeubles through a company means
that you own the shares (which are defined as
meubles) in the company rather than owning the
French immeubles itself. This can sometimes be
beneficial for non- French residents since, as explained
above, meubles held by a non-French resident are not
subject to French succession law.
This advantage is lost, however, if you die domiciled in
France. However, there may be other reasons why it is still
advantageous for those who are domiciled in France as well as
those whose domicile is non-French to make use of a company
to own French immeubles.
Each of the above and other methods of ownership has different
legal and tax implications for the owner(s) and next of kin.
To illustrate some of the points made above, consider Jack and Jill
who are domiciled in England. Their English wills cover all their
assets worldwide, including a house (built on top of a hill) in
France, which they own en indivision 50% each. Their English
wills require the deceased spouses’ French
immeubles to pass in full to the surviving spouse. They have
two minor children (A aged 1 and B aged 12) by their marriage, and
each has two children by previous relationships (C and D are
Jack’s, E and F are Jill’s). One morning Jack went down
the hill, tripped over a pail of water, and was killed. Jill may
well have assumed that, because Jack’s English will left
everything to her, she now owns all of the French immeubles.
She is mistaken, however, because French law overrides Jack’s
English will. Jill is instead left with one half of the French
immeubles she already owned, but must share the other half with
four children, two of whom are minors, C and D are not hers (she
has never yet met them nor their mother Mrs. Goose) whose
involvement is required to deal with the administration of
Jack’s French estate within the next 12 months. Jill is
understandably not pleased to discover this at a time when the last
thing she needs is this kind of unexpected shock. Moreover, as
explained below, if the parties argue about the French
immeubles (e.g. Jill wants to sell but Mrs. Goose or one or
more of the others do not) the dispute must be resolved by the
French courts with sometimes unexpected results. To make matters
worse, the French immeubles cannot in any event be sold for
17 years (until A reaches the age of majority).
3. Free initial advice
If you would like us to help with your French succession law and/or
French IHT matters, please complete the French Wills and
Succession Law Questionnaire (click here) and return it to
firstname.lastname@example.org. Once we have your
completed Questionnaire, we will e-mail you a free assessment with
brief recommendations of what (if anything) you need to do in order
to avoid or mitigate problems of French succession law and/or
French IHT in the future. Please note that we are unable to discuss
your case by telephone or other correspondence unless we have been
formally instructed by you (see Paragraph 5. below).
4. French Wills
In many cases, all that you need to do is to instruct us to make a
French Will for you. You should not usually let your English Will
govern your French estate. An alarming number of people do not make
a French (or English) Will at all. Thinking about one’s own
death is not the most positive of pastimes but, for many people, a
reluctance to contemplate mortality is not the problem. To these
people, making a French or any other Will seems as though it should
be just simply an inexpensive consumer service offered by a
supermarket for £9.99.
With few exceptions, anyone owning property that is governed by
French succession law should make a French Will. The consequence of
dying intestate in France (without a Will that respects the rules
of French succession law) can otherwise severely prejudice your
next of kin and provide plenty of work to keep French probate
lawyers in business.
In one case (not unlike Jack and Jill’s) a client died
without making a valid French Will, leaving a former wife and a
second wife with minor children from each marriage. It took more
than seven years, four firms of lawyers acting for the various
parties and combined legal fees of something like £300,000 to
resolve matters to nobody’s particular satisfaction. Not to
mention a French inheritance tax bill several hundred thousand
pounds higher than it might have been had the deceased made a
carefully crafted French Will. At least the client is not around to
see the chaos he has created. I have seen several such tales,
distant or disliked relatives inheriting French property instead of
long-term partners, massively higher French IHT bills, long and
expensive French court cases. These and other scenarios have graced
the filing cabinets of French lawyers because of the simple failure
to make a French Will.
You only need to own a small apartment in France these days and the
French and/or English taxman is rubbing his hands behind his back,
just waiting for the tax to roll in when you die. Two or three
thousand pounds on a family holiday - fine, but the prospect of
spending considerably less on a French lawyer so as to save French
IHT and deal with family succession planning – no way.
French lawyers have gone some way to creating this state of affairs
by offering the writing of Wills and succession planning as an
afterthought service. But hopefully, with more and more people
being caught by French IHT and second and third families becoming
more commonplace, things will change. And if they don’t, it
won’t be the lawyers who will suffer. All those problems over
intestacies or disputes over poorly drafted Wills will keep them in
business long after the person is dead and buried.
5. How to instruct us
If you would like to formally engage our services in order to
implement some or all of our recommendations, please read
“How we charge for our services” (click here). Every
client has different tax and succession planning requirements, and
in some cases making a French Will is not enough. Sometimes an
alternative or additional solution may be required. For example, it
may be appropriate to form a company to own your French
immeubles. The greater the complexity of your needs, the
greater the costs and the chance that something will go wrong.
Other less sophisticated but effective methods may be appropriate,
even if they achieve more limited objectives at less overall cost
6. About us
6.1 About Stephen Smith
Stephen Smith is a bilingual French national who read French law
and English law at Cambridge University. He is a French lawyer
(juriste) holding substantial UK professional indemnity
insurance, and lives and works as a French lawyer in England and in
France. He is one of the leading French property law specialists in
the UK, and has over 25 years experience covering all aspects of
buying and selling residential and commercial property in France.
Stephen is a published author on French law and tax. He appears on
television and radio as an expert in French property matters, and
also writes for or is quoted regularly in a broad range of
specialist publications and in the UK or French press.
On a personal note, Stephen is passionate about France and French
rugby. Unlike many lawyers he has a good sense of humour. He has an
unfulfilled ambition to create the Society for the Preservation of
Authentic Bistros in France.
6.2 About Stephen Smith (France) Ltd
We are a well-respected bilingual company. We provide strong
cross-cultural expertise in all aspects of residential and
commercial real property across France. We are experienced in
handling higher value or complex French property and commercial
transactions, often working closely with clients’
professional advisers in the UK, France or elsewhere.
Service from Stephen Smith (France) Ltd means a comprehensive range
of skills to include:
strength in depth and breadth (we know our subject)
personal service (we care about our clients)
active communication (we chase unanswered communications)
informal and approachable staff (we enjoy doing what we do)
extremely good value (for work requiring specialist skills)
As well as mainstream French real property work, we and our network
of qualified independent lawyers and other professionals across
France can advise on French succession law, French inheritance tax,
French estate (inheritance) planning, cross-border wills and
probate, French wealth tax, French capital gains tax, other French
taxes and opportunities for tax efficiency.
A number of the French lawyers with whom we work closely are the
authors or co-authors of some of the leading French legal textbooks
covering areas which complement our own areas of expertise.
7. Exclusion of liability and disclaimer
This document provides a general overview only of various aspects
of French succession law and French IHT.
The information and opinions contained in this document are not
intended to be a comprehensive study, nor to provide legal or tax
or any other advice, and should not therefore be relied on or
treated as a substitute for specific advice concerning individual
Stephen Smith and Stephen Smith (France) Ltd make no
representations, express or implied, with regard to the accuracy of
the information contained in this document, and cannot accept any
responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions that it may
Stephen Smith and Stephen Smith (France) Ltd will not be held
liable or responsible to any person or entity with respect to loss
or damage as a result of the information supplied in this document,
whether caused or said to be caused by a direct or indirect result
of its contents.