Estate planning - French Law

If you own a property or other assets in France, or are considering relocating to France, you’ll need to plan what is to happen to your estate, both in the UK and France, when you die.

A significant European Succession Regulation, known as Brussels IV, came into force in August 2015. Previously, French inheritance law applied to any French immoveable property (i.e. land and/or buildings) owned by a person who died whilst domiciled in England & Wales and there was very little that could be done to change this. French law also applied to the worldwide assets of anybody who died whilst living in France, except for any immoveable property situated abroad.

The aim of Brussels IV is to prevent different inheritance laws applying to assets situated in different countries by providing that, where a person owns assets in the EU, their worldwide estate is governed by a single inheritance law.

If this applies to you, Brussels IV states that your worldwide estate will be governed by the law of the country of your last habitual residence at the time of your death, unless your Will provides otherwise.

As a result, if you are resident in England with no plans to live abroad, you might assume that your French property will pass under English law. However, the UK has opted out of Brussels IV and so French law will continue to apply, at least to your French immoveable assets.

If French law applies, ‘forced heirship’ rules mean that, on your death, you cannot usually leave your French property to your surviving spouse or other beneficiaries because your children have an automatic entitlement to part of it.

That said, Brussels IV provides that you can opt, by Will, for the law of your nationality to apply to your worldwide assets instead. This option is available despite the UK not having signed up to the Regulation.

So, if you wish to bypass the French forced heirship rules, or if you are unsure of where you are likely to be living at the time of your death and want to future-proof your Will, you can include a clause in your Will expressly selecting the law of your nationality to apply to your worldwide estate. If you are a British national, most closely connected to the jurisdiction of England & Wales, you can leave your French property (and other French assets, where applicable) to beneficiaries of your choosing, subject to certain caveats.

However, a word of caution – seek specialist legal advice as to whether such a ‘Choice of Law’ is appropriate for your circumstances and, if so, whether it is preferable to make one Will or two. The wording of any Will also requires careful consideration. As Brussels IV doesn’t affect inheritance tax, both French and UK inheritance tax consequences must also be taken into account.

Fortunately, due to the UK’s opt-out, the impact of Brussels IV on UK-resident owners of French property, and British nationals living in France, is unlikely to change after Brexit.

As well as ensuring your Wills are in order, you may want to take advantage of other French estate planning tools. For example, if you are planning to buy a property in France, inserting a Tontine clause in the property purchase deed can help ensure that your co-purchaser inherits your share of the property on your death. Equally, if you are buying a property with several other people (e.g. friends or family members), you may wish to consider setting up a French property holding company (Société Civile Immobilière, or “SCI”) to own the property. Doing so may facilitate the transfer of shares between shareholders or to your beneficiaries on your death. We can advise you on the pros and cons of these options in your circumstances.

Our multi-lingual International Department advises on all aspects of buying and selling property in both France and Spain as well as related Wills, estate and tax planning issues.