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Legal advice needed on French property inheritance laws-how to go about it

(31 Posts)
mignonette Wed 10-Jul-13 10:49:04

A few years before my Father died he informed me that upon his death according to French property laws, My siblings and I would inherit 75% of his house in France. He has been married to my stepmother for 23 years and they have no arrangement to protect the house from the inheritance laws.

He died last year and my stepmother is claiming that they 'left the house to each other' in their wills. She met another man three months after his death and has now placed the house on the market. They also have two other British properties and all three are owned outright so she will not be left homeless or financially vulnerable.

What do I need to do to ensure that the French laws are upheld regarding our inheritance? I do not know who her lawyer is and she will not tell us anything other than that it is hers to do as she wishes. How do I initiate legal action and do I need to inform the French authorities and if so, who and how? Can we receive any legal aid to do this? Would you advise against no win, no fee for example?

Please do not post here if you wish to advise me not to pursue this for whatever moral reasons. The family story is more complicated than I wish to disclose here and we siblings have made up our mind to proceed. we just do not know what to do.

Thanks in advance.

kirsty75005 Wed 10-Jul-13 11:32:09

I'm not a lawyer and anything I say should be taken with a pinch of salt but I do live in France and know a little bit about inheritance laws here.

Is your step mum British or French ?

Were your dad and step mum married ? Did he die in France and was her resident there before his death ? If so, I believe there's a central index you can consult which may be able to give you useful information, the "Fiche Centrale des Dispositions des Dernières Volontés". It should be able to give you a) any will your father made in France and more importantly b) the name of the "notaire" who settled the estate - kind of a cross between a public official and a solicitor and the person you would want to contact about your contesting of the estate.

It is possible that your step mum has inherited the "usufruit" on the house (ie the right to use it up till her death) rather than the house itself and you still have the "nu-propriété" (French law does allow for this, though I'm not sure that it's possible when there are children from a previous marriage). (The difference between usufruit and nu-propriété is similar to the distinction leasehold/freehold). If that's the case I don't believe she can sell it (to be checked : I'm not entirely sure about that).

mignonette Wed 10-Jul-13 11:39:24

Step mother is English. He died over here and his residence was officially in Britain although time divided pretty equally between the two.

Will check on the usafruit and the Fiche centrale and thank you for that. with her refusing to tell us anything combined with what my Father told me, makes me very suspicious.

Am so anxious for guidance on this before embarking upon costly legal proceedings. I did read about a similar situation for the children of Bernard Matthews of all people and they were successful in the High Court.

Portofino Wed 10-Jul-13 11:48:30

My understanding is you cannot be disinherited - so it would depend on whether the house was his outright, or whether it was jointly owned by them both....

Portofino Wed 10-Jul-13 11:52:38

Link with synopsis of law which says clearly you have legal remedy even if he DID leave her the house.

mignonette Wed 10-Jul-13 11:57:39

Thanks for all this information. I have been told by my father that we have to inherit and French law enshrines this unless there is a Tontine as all other wills etc cannot supercede French law. I just do not know the steps I have to take. It looks like I will have to obtain a copy of his death certificate to access the Fiche Centrale so will start that process.

babybarrister Wed 10-Jul-13 15:39:18

if it is real property situated in France, the general law is that it is French inheritance law governing the distributi on of that asset, regardless of whether there is another English will or the English assets are dealt with under English inheritance laws

the difficulty is that if as a result of this your step mother is left with very little she may have an English claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 against the remaining assets [which may have been left to you ....]

It is therefore REALLY important that take some expert advice from a dual qualified English French solicitor who does probate actions - Russell Cooke and BLake Lapthorn both very good ....

it would be a waste of your money ONLY to consider the situation in one of the jurisdictions if there are assets in both ....

mignonette Wed 10-Jul-13 15:45:43

We have been left nothing. We do not even have a grave, or photo's or any of his possessions. She has his entire estate. Thank you all and BabyBarrister I will contact one of those firms.

We do not wish to take anything other than that which French laws deem part ours. It is not even the most valuable property especially considering CGT levels in France. But there are grandchildren teetering on the edge of needing to buy/rent and this possible legacy would be wonderful for them.

I have contacted her requesting the name of the Notaire and of her British solicitors. She has yet to reply but this issue will not go away.

babybarrister Wed 10-Jul-13 15:47:51

French inheritance laws

as you can see, your Dad [assuming he was still domiciled in England] will have his French real property dealt with under FRench law and everything else dealt with under English law [presuming he did not in fact leave a French will ....]

it is all an interesting one for the lawyers so please bear in mind the costs .... do consider mediation at the outset as jurisdictional disputes and foreign proceedings are v costly

mignonette Wed 10-Jul-13 15:56:34

Yes I will try to prevent costly legal action. She is not responding to our requests for information regarding Notaire/her lawyer etc. I am trying to ascertain whether there was a French will. StepM said initially that 'they had a very simple will leaving everything to each other' however I understand that this will not supercede French inheritance laws. I understand that they did not have a Tontine nor a French marriage certificate. They married in the UK prior to the French house purchase.

He was domiciled in England but obviously had to have a bank account in France. He was retired.

I take it that there is no legal aid for this kind of dispute/action?

mignonette Wed 10-Jul-13 16:01:04

RE the Notaire, would it be his duty to establish whether there are any issue from either/both parties or would he/she rely upon what say, my StepM would tell them? So could she not disclose the fact that my Father had children therefore meaning we would not be taken into consideration?

Should we establish that she has failed to disclose our existence in order to prevent having to lose some of the house,, is that a criminal or civil matter in France?

We have not had any correspondence from any Notaire or solicitor? Does that mean she has failed to notify them of our existence and rights under French laws?

Portofino Wed 10-Jul-13 19:06:54

It sounds very odd. I am in Belgium not France but the system is similar in that you Cannot disinherit your children. Here all accounts etc are frozen until probate is sorted and the heirs "accept "the inheritance.

I think she has probably done something illegal. My understanding is that even if she owns half the property as a joint asset, she is entitled to no more than 25% of his French estate ie his half of the property and any other non joint assets. She may well get a life interest, however.

My Dh has an older dd, so this is something I have been telling him for ages we need to sort out.

Portofino Wed 10-Jul-13 19:08:05

Ergo, if she had told them of your existence, you would have been contacted by now.

RedHelenB Wed 10-Jul-13 19:11:28

Bernard Matthews presumably had a large estate to administer - if you are talking about the possibility of legal aid you need to think long & hard about whether you can afford to pursue it as it is bound to be costly.

kirsty75005 Wed 10-Jul-13 20:58:58

No, it doesn't supersede French inheritance laws. If the inheritance has been dealt with by a French notaire and he were aware of your existence he would have a duty to do his utmost to try and track you down - I have a friend who had never seen their father since very young and had no contact with anyone who knew them. The notaire found them within less than a month of the death.

I think that if she failed to disclose your existence to the notaire then that would be fraud under French law.

Is it possible that she hasn't settled the estate in France at all ? (Like I say, I'm not a lawyer)

I think that normally what the notaire does to check for children is check the état civil, but that won't work for foreign-born children.

One thing you could maybe try doing is contacting the chambre des notaires of the département where they were to see if they can help. They might possibly be able to contact their members for you, either to ask about the settlement of the estate or to warn them to check the titles to the property very carefully if they are called upon to sell the house. (I think that part of what notaires are supposed to do when they officiate at the sale of a property is double check that the seller really does own it.)

digerd Wed 10-Jul-13 21:38:30

French inheritance laws do not allow "leaving everything to eachother".
French legal heirs are the blood-line children. Spouses cannot be heirs.
She keeps what was in her name when he died, but she cannot inherit anything from him in a Will.
No french solicitor is allowed to make a joint Will. A couple has to make one each naming their blood-line DC as the heirs. If stepmum has no DC, she has to name her next of blood-line kin of her blood-line family.

A french solicitor told me this.

digerd Wed 10-Jul-13 21:40:41

PS If the couple have no DC together, they must make 2 separate Wills.
Otherwise they both leave everything to their DC, not the spouse.

Portofino Wed 10-Jul-13 22:54:28

My Dh is estranged from his adult daughter. From what I can see she is entitled to 1/3 of his estate. I have no issue with this per se, but he is denial when it comes to sorting stuff so that can sort my position with my non adult dd. I won't be buying any joint houses any time soon....

mignonette Thu 11-Jul-13 09:47:08

Thank you all of you. I have a clearer idea of how to go about this now. I will contact the french officials directly and proceed from there.

AgathaF Thu 11-Jul-13 09:57:24

Can you contact the local Mairie for the town? I think that they are aware of all properties for sale in their area so they may well know who is acting as notaire.

I am fairly sure that lots of french house sales are held up for potentially years due to arguments about who will inherit (that was our experience when we bought over there), however, as long as they know of your existence it should be fairly clear cut since children inherit in the absence of a tontine clause.

mignonette Thu 11-Jul-13 10:04:28

That's a great idea Agatha. I will do that as I have met him at parties at Dads house.
Yes, the French system is why the fields/agricultural land are such interesting patchworks with 6 acres ending up divided and sub divided over the generations.
I have emailed StepM with a final request as to details and a warning that we will contact the Notaire and Mairie should she not comply. Presumably there is an attempted fraud possibly going on here because i am pretty sure there is no Tontine which as you know results in a loss of capital in the form of taxes should it be enacted. And my Father hated taxes more anything....

digerd Thu 11-Jul-13 21:41:38

The French inheritance laws are different from the belgium and german ones. The latter 2 do allow the spouse to inherit half - not the french or spanish.
My friend's english parents lived in spain and the dad died. Mum was not allowerd to inherit anything of his in France. My friend was the sole legal heir of her dad and had to go Spain to accept it.

digerd Thu 11-Jul-13 21:42:25


digerd Thu 11-Jul-13 21:46:03

Also the french solicitor told me that if the widow had no Dc with deceased and he had none, and the house was totally in his name, the house would be inherited by his blood-line family - siblings- BUT they could not evict the widow and make her homeless. She had to be allowed to remain there.

digerd Fri 12-Jul-13 06:35:21

Spain not France

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