We assist Americans who own a family house, a pied-a-terre or a vacation home in France. A main concern of ownership is the French succession laws, which would automatically apply on the real estate upon the death of the U.S. citizen. In France, the children are the legal heirs of a decedent’s estate. The surviving spouse does not take priority in inheriting his/her partner’s estate. An individual’s assets on death consist of a reserved portion (reserve légale) and a disposable portion (quotité disponible). The reserved portion must go to the protected heirs (héritiers réservataires: children and grand-children), regardless of the wishes of the deceased. If there is one living child (or a deceased child with living issue) the reserved portion is half of the estate. If there are two such children, the reserved portion is two-thirds of the estate divided equally between them. If there are more, it is three-quarters of the estate divided equally between them. As an example, if an American owns a house in France and has two living children, then on his death, two-thirds of his share in the French house must pass to his protected heirs under French law. Even if his U.S. will attempts to leave the French house to his surviving spouse, the house will pass – at least for 2/3 – to his surviving children.
In the presence of héritiers réservataires, the surviving spouse may choose between taking a life estate (usufruit) in the French assets or the absolute ownership of one quarter of the estate. The usufruit includes the right to use the property and to take any income (e.g. rental income) generated by it. However the usufruit can, at the request of any of the héritiers réservataires or the surviving spouse herself, be converted into a rente viagére (a rent or annuity paid for the remainder of the surviving spouse’s lifetime).
It is usually advisable to have two wills for Americans who own assets in the US and in France. Trying to prove a French Will in the U.S., or a U.S. Will in France may mean that the process will be slower and more expensive. The concept of probate does not exist in French law and property passes ‘automatically’ on death to the heirs. If there is an inheritance tax, liability (a ‘déclaration de succession”) must be filed within 6 months of the death (12 months if the deceased died domiciled outside France) to avoid possible tax penalties.
We have established a network of French attorneys and notaries to assist our clients with all phases of French-American probate questions.