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Languedoc Property:   Inheritance Law

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 generation.

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 nobles.

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 do.

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 you die).


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