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French Entrée Magazine - Will I Be Disinherited?

Question

My wife and I purchased a house in France in 2003. I am 12 years older than my wife and have two children from a previous marriage as well as two children with my current wife. We therefore decided to purchase the house in the sole name of my wife.

We are now worried as my wife has been suffering with cancer since 2008. If my wife dies and leaves the house to me under her English Will is this acceptable under French law? Alternatively, would our two children inherit the property under French inheritance law and leave me without an interest in the property?

Answer

I can reassure you straight away that by addressing this matter now it is still possible for your wife to take steps to give you enhanced rights to inherit all or part of your French house.

In France children are reserved heirs and it is not easy to disinherit them. Any property situated in France is subject to French inheritance law so a UK Will made by your wife naming you as the sole beneficiary of the French property would be overridden by the automatic rights which children have under French law to inherit from their parents. However, as your wife is the sole owner of the property and as her only children are common to your marriage it is possible to postpone their interests until the death of the survivor of you.

The quickest way to do this is for you to adopt a French marriage contract called universal community. This would ensure that in the event of your wife dying before you, you would become sole owner of your French house. Subsequently - if you still own the property when you die, your 4 children would be entitled to inherit the property in equal shares.

If you do not take any action and your wife predeceases you, the French property will pass to you and your two younger children. Your children would be entitled to inherit at least 2/3 of the property (in equal shares). As surviving spouse you could elect to receive 1/4 of the property outright or a life interest over the whole of the property. A life interest is the right to use and enjoy the property for the rest of your life and means that your children could not force you to vacate or sell the property against your wishes.

If your wife makes a French Will she could give you a third option of receiving the full title to the remaining 1/3 of the property after your 2 children had received their 2/3 share. However, the drawback is that if you wanted to sell the property, the notary in France would insist that the appropriate proportion of the sale proceeds was paid to your 2 younger children.

If you decide to adopt the universal community regime and the property passes to you no inheritance tax will be payable as there is a total exemption of inheritance tax between spouses. A transfer tax would be payable however which would be based on the value of the property.

I do hope this answers your queries.

This article first appeared in French Entrée Magazine issue 90 JAN/FEB 2012.

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