If you have been reading the news recently you will know that a legal battle is about to start between the wife of the much beloved deceased French Rock Star Johnny Hallyday and his two children from his previous relationships, Laura Smet and David Hallyday. Johnny Hallyday’s children will reportedly contest the decision in his will to leave all his property and artistic rights to his widow Laeticia and their two adopted daughters. Whilst many of us do not have the same level of wealth as Johnny Hallyday, this case does highlight the issues around proper legal wills and more especially in situations where one has assets in more than one country.
Why is it important to have a will?
No one is legally required to have a will; however, most people want to be able to leave instructions on how their assets should be handled in the event of their death. A will is a legal document allowing you to communicate what you would like to happen to your personal possessions after you die. When you purchase a high value, physical asset, such as a house, it becomes even more important to be able to decide who would receive such assets should something happen to you.
If you are resident in France and do not have a valid will in place, then your property would be shared out according to the French rules of intestacy, granting automatic inheritance rights to any children you may have had, your surviving spouse, or to other relatives in the absence of a surviving spouse or child. If you do not have children and are not married or in a civil partnership, your assets would go to your nearest relative.
Do I need to re-do my English will now that I have bought a property in France?
If you have bought a property in France and not updated your UK will it would be advisable to speak to a UK cross border specialist who would be able to advise on whether your existing English will is suitable, or whether it may need replacing or updating in any way.
An English will – if properly drafted and executed in accordance with the UK Wills act of 1837 – would be recognised in France. France has signed the 1961 Hague Convention concerning wills and therefore recognises wills that are valid under UK law. Your French assets could therefore be dealt with together with your English assets under a carefully drafted English will, however this is not recommended in every case and you should seek proper legal advice to ensure that this would be the best solution in your personal circumstances.
When drafting a new will, it is important to inform your lawyer or notaire of the existence of any previous wills in any other country, to avoid revoking a will you have already made in the other country. They would be able to assist you in drafting a new will which takes into consideration any other wills specifically dealing with property in another country.
Do I need to do a French will?
This will depend on your individual circumstances and you should always seek professional advice from a properly qualified lawyer experienced in dealing with cross-border matters. “The inheritance and tax laws of the two countries are very different and each case needs to be examined individually before making a decision” says Matthew Cameron, Partner at Ashtons Legal, specialist in French law and cross-border legal issues. For example, whilst trusts are used very frequently in UK wills, they can cause all kinds of additional administrative and filing obligations in French law. A UK testator usually appoints executors to administer his/her estate after death and distribute the assets to the beneficiaries. In French law the notary is responsible for distributing the estate and assets can be held “jointly” or in “indivision” until the estate is wound up.
You should also note that under French law you cannot leave your estate to whomever you wish. The children have priority over the estate and the surviving spouse is only entitled to a fraction of the whole amount. So whilst you can, in a French will, give certain assets to friends and relatives, you cannot override French inheritance laws in the terms of your will.
I have heard that I can have English law apply to my French will is this true?
The European Succession Regulation 650/2012, also known as ‘Brussels IV’, which came into force on 17 August 2015, allows one law to apply to the whole of the deceased’s estate regardless of the location of the asset. International private law states that French law applies to immovable real estate assets situated in France and English law applies to real estate assets situated in England. Under this regulation the laws of the country in which a person is habitually resident at their death will apply to them unless they have made a declaration during their lifetime. This means that if you wish to elect for the law of your nationality to apply to the disposal of your estate, and for it to be recognised in France, it must be written into your will. However, the inverse cannot apply as the UK opted out of this EU regulation, so only English law can apply to an English estate. As Caroline Jeanson, notaire in Bordeaux who worked for over 12 years with English speaking clients in the Duras area, said “I have never yet, since the Regulation was enacted, advised a British national resident in France to opt for English law in their French will”. Whilst in theory you can choose which law will govern how you leave your assets, this will not avoid French inheritance tax. Under French tax law, if you leave your assets to someone who is not a direct blood relative, there can be substantial tax consequences. That beautiful chateau you own would probably have to be sold to settle the tax liability.
Do I need to do a will with a French notaire?
Strictly speaking you do not need to go to a French notary to write your will. You can do a hand written will called a “Testament Olographe” (holographic will) which is perfectly valid under French law. There is no legal requirement for it to be in the French language, it does not need to be witnessed nor does it have to be registered anywhere, however it is advisable to have it registered with the Central Wills Registry (Fichier Central des Dispositions de Dernières Volontés) which would enable any notary to access it. In any case it is best to seek the advice of a French notary before drafting a will. The first consultation is free and once the notary fully understands your specific situation they would be able to advise you on how best to draft the terms of your will.
Anyone who has ever lost someone will tell you that not only is it difficult to manage emotionally, but just at this very difficult time, there are a whole range of administrative matters that have to be dealt with. If the person did not make provisions in their will it is left to their friends or loved ones to deal with their assets, causing further upset and difficulty. To avoid this and to fully understand your personal situation it is best to seek professional advice from an independent financial adviser specialised in French tax matters, a UK solicitor specialised in French law or a French notary with several years’ experience advising English speaking clients.
For any questions or to make an appointment, please do not hesitate to contact us.