You might have wondered why there are so many wonderful old
buildings in France falling into ruin. The reason is a law
designed to prevent the accumulation of wealth in few hands,
by ensuring that it gets dispersed as widely as possible each
In France, as in England, the traditional mode of inheritance
was based on primogeniture. The eldest son got the lot. In
the Languedoc the traditional mode was to divide the inheritance
between all the children. This was why it was common to find
forty or fifty co-seigneurs for the same siegneurie in the
middle ages. This division was widely accepted as one of the
main causes of the weakness of Raymond of Toulouse, when faced
with the feudal French and their ranks of rich and powerful
When the Languedoc was annexed to France, the French system
of primogeniture was introduced, and this lasted until the
French Revolution. The Revolutionaries were also aware that
primogeniture built large and powerful families, and for this
reason they favoured the old system of the Languedoc. It was
a way of dividing and ruling, designed to prevent the accumulation
of power in dynastic families. Whether it succeeded or not
is questionable, but it explains why the French concept of
liberty does not extend to allowing you to leave all your
property to who you want. There are strict statutory regulations
about what you can and cannot leave in your will.
Broadly the system operates rather like the rules of intestacy
in English law jurisdictions - with the important difference
that in those jurisdictions these rules are applied only when
there is no valid will. In France these rules apply whatever
you put in your will. When people had large families a property
might be jointly inherited by say six children. By the next
generation there might be forty co-owning cousins. By the
next generation the position would be impossible. The property
could not be sold without all co-owners agreeing. Even if
they could all be found, the chances of them agreeing on anything
was remote. Worse, no-one had an interest in maintaining the
property since that would benefit all the non-contributers.
The important point for you is that there is no way to disinherit
your children or other legal heirs. French inheritance laws,
enshrined in the Code Napoléon, are based on "indivision".
They place an imperative priority on the rights of children
to inherit before all others (including the surviving spouse).
The position of the surviving spouse can be a worry, especially
if there are several children or children from different relationships.
A widow or widower, even if co-owner of the house, cannot
simply inherit the late partner's half unless there are no
children at all (and no parents of either partner still living).
However, provided there are no children from an earlier marriage,
the survivor can inherit a quarter of the French estate absolutely
or may opt instead for use (including benefit from rental
income) and occupation of the property for life.
If there are stepchildren, the surviving partner may still
have the right to occupy the house for his or her lifetime,
but only if the deceased has not excluded this in a will.
This is not important if family structure is very simple:
for example, a single parent with a sole child, who wishes
that child to inherit everything. The parent need not worry
- the state will regard the offspring as sole heir. Similarly
if the parent has a number of children and wishes them all
to inherit equally.
If the parent wants to bequeath some part of the estate to
someone else, the problems start. Half of the property will
be reserved to a sole child in any case, more if there are
a number of children. There of course ways around this, all
of which carry greater of lesser dangers. Bear in mind that
the concept of a trust is foreign to French law, so the usual
mechanisms in Britain, Ireland, Australia, Canada and the
USA are not available. Here are some options:
Lifetime Gifts. You can give your property away during
your lifetime. (I know a single woman who gave their house
to her sole heir on the understanding that she could continue
to live there. When he sold it without her knowledge, she
had to buy another property - which she now cannot prevent
him from inheriting).
Tontine. A tontine clause in the purchase contract
(Acte Authentique) has the effect of CO-owning spouses agreeing
that on the death of one of them the survivor automatically
becomes outright owner of the whole property. This was a popular
solution to the problem, but inflation has rendered it almost
useless, as it is only valid up to a value of 76,000 Euros
(at the time of writing). What is more it is a device which
must not be used with the evident aim of disinheriting children.
An aggrieved child may challenge it in court.
SCI. Some people, especially those with complex family
structures buy through a company - usually an Societe Civile
Immobilière (SCI) a Private Property Company. This eases the
inheritance problems as the company owns the property and
shares may be transferred freely. This is an effective solution.
It also involves certain statutory obligations, for example
in administering the SCI.
French inheritance laws are complex, and worse they are changing
all the time. Most authorities advise you to consult the notaire
handling the purchase of your property about your rights and
obligations, or a tax lawyer if necessary. Your only safe
solution is to become an expert in French law yourself - no
one else has as much of an incentive to get it right as you
Actually writing the will is a simple matter, though quaintly
it has to be hand written. A notaire will help with the wording,
will register the will for 15 euros (and administer it when