Preparing International Wills: A Checklist for Clients and their Lawyers

Complete Questionnaire for International Families and Expats who are resident or own Assets in Germany or Austria

If you or your client owns assets in more than one country, or if a beneficiary is resident in another country than the testator, chances are that the executor and/or the beneficiary need to obtain probate in more than one country. Since the EU Succession Regulation neither applies to the United Kingdom nor to Ireland, the option to take out a European Grant does not exist in those cases. Furthermore, the estate may be subject to various inheritance tax regimes.

Therefore, international families and expats should draft their Wills in a way which ensures a smooth transfer of the assets. British or U.S. Wills often create uncertainty in Civil Law Jurisdictions like Germany, Austria, Spain or France. Vice versa, German or French style Wills are often difficult to interpret in regards to the issue of who has become “heir” (Erbe). Thus, in order to avoid legal uncertainties or even disputes between the beneficiaries and executors, the Will should address the probate requirement of all jurisdictions involved. Inter alia, this means to use the specific succession law and probate terminology in the international Will in order to avoid misinterpretation by the probate registrar. There are many “false friends” in international succession law: an executor under English law, for example, is not at all the same as an Austrian “Exekutor”.

There are more taxes than you may think

Also, every testator who finds himself in an international situation should keep in mind the very different inheritance tax regimes of various countries. English solicitors or U.S. lawyers sometimes forget that there may be additional inheritance tax due in the country where the foreign assets are situated or – and this aspect is sometimes overlooked – where an individual beneficiary is resident at the time of the bereavement. While Austria, for example, does not levy inheritance tax at all, countries like Germany and France do tax the individual beneficiary. This is dangerous territory for international succession lawyers. Professional tax and estate planning can often mitigate the overall inheritance tax quite considerably.

Lawyers can create a tailor-made Last Will only if they are fully informed about the testator’s personal situation and his/her objectives. In order to draw up a Last Will that fully meets the clients individual requirements, Graf Partner LLP uses a comprehensive questionnaire and Will preparation checklist (available for download here).  This checklist also helps to facilitate an effective and individual preparation for the personal meeting at the firm.

If you wish to instruct Graf & Partners LLP to draft a Will or to team up with a foreign lawyer to advise in specific areas of German or Austrian law, please feel free to complete the questionnaire and contact our German succession and probate law experts.

German solicitor Bernhard Schmeilzl also conducts inhouse seminars for British and American lawyers and accountants who advise clients with foreign assets or who have family abroad. More on these seminars here: Advising Clients with Assets Abroad

For more information on German-British probate matters and international will preparation see the below posts by the international succession law experts of Graf & Partners LLP:

Or simply click on the “German Probate” section in the right column of this blog.

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The law firm Graf & Partners and its German-English litigation department GP Chambers was established in 2003 and has many years of experience with British-German and US-German probate matters, including the representation of clients in contentious probate matters. If you wish us to advise or represent you in a German or cross border inheritance case please contact German solicitor Bernhard Schmeilzl, LL.M. (Leicester) at +49 941 463 7070.

 

Is there German Capital Gains Tax when you sell a German Property?

If you buy or inherit German property (whether it is a house, a flat or just a plot of land) and this property is then sold (by you or your heirs) before a period of ten full years has expired, the resulting profit (sale price minus purchase price minus certain related costs like notary fees) is subject to German tax, even if you are not a German tax resident. There are certain exceptions to this rule, e.g. if you have used the German property exclusively as your private residence. If you have inherited the German property, the years during which the legator had already owned the property does count in your favour.

The relevant statute for this capital gains taxation is section 23 German Income Tax Act (Einkommensteuergesetz). The wording of the tax statute is hard to digest even for a German, but in case you wish to try, here you go:

Einkommensteuergesetz (EStG) § 23 Private Veräußerungsgeschäfte

(1) 1Private Veräußerungsgeschäfte (§ 22 Nummer 2) sind: 1. Veräußerungsgeschäfte bei Grundstücken und Rechten, die den Vorschriften des bürgerlichen Rechts über Grundstücke unterliegen (z. B. Erbbaurecht, Mineralgewinnungsrecht), bei denen der Zeitraum zwischen Anschaffung und Veräußerung nicht mehr als zehn Jahre beträgt. 2Gebäude und Außenanlagen sind einzubeziehen, soweit sie innerhalb dieses Zeitraums errichtet, ausgebaut oder erweitert werden; dies gilt entsprechend für Gebäudeteile, die selbständige unbewegliche Wirtschaftsgüter sind, sowie für Eigentumswohnungen und im Teileigentum stehende Räume. 3Ausgenommen sind Wirtschaftsgüter, die im Zeitraum zwischen Anschaffung oder Fertigstellung und Veräußerung ausschließlich zu eigenen Wohnzwecken oder im Jahr der Veräußerung und in den beiden vorangegangenen Jahren zu eigenen Wohnzwecken genutzt wurden; 2. (… not relevant here); 3. (… not relevant here)
(2) Einkünfte aus privaten Veräußerungsgeschäften der in Absatz 1 bezeichneten Art sind den Einkünften aus anderen Einkunftsarten zuzurechnen, soweit sie zu diesen gehören.
(3) 1Gewinn oder Verlust aus Veräußerungsgeschäften nach Absatz 1 ist der Unterschied zwischen Veräußerungspreis einerseits und den Anschaffungs- oder Herstellungskosten und den Werbungskosten andererseits. 2(.. not relevant here) 4Die Anschaffungs- oder Herstellungskosten mindern sich um Absetzungen für Abnutzung, erhöhte Absetzungen und Sonderabschreibungen, soweit sie bei der Ermittlung der Einkünfte im Sinne des § 2 Absatz 1 Satz 1 Nummer 4 bis 7 abgezogen worden sind. 5Gewinne bleiben steuerfrei, wenn der aus den privaten Veräußerungsgeschäften erzielte Gesamtgewinn im Kalenderjahr weniger als 600 Euro betragen hat. 6 (… not relevant here).
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The profit is then considered to be part of your income in the fiscal year in which the German property is sold, more precisely in which the buyer pays the purchase price. As mentioned above, German income tax is levied on this profit even if otherwise you are not a German tax resident. Whether this profit is also considered to be taxable income in your home country (UK self assessment, US income tax or other) and whether there are double taxation treaties in place for such constellations must be assessed in each individual case.
The above does only apply for private property sales (private Veräußerungsgeschäfte). If the buyer is a business or if a private person buys and sells more than three properties in Germany within a period of five years, then the 10 year exemption is not applicable. In these cases any profit is from selling German real estate is always subject to German income or corporate tax.

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More information on buying or selling property in Germany, the German Land Registry, the conveyancing process and the rights and duties of tenants and landlords in Germany is available in these posts:

Or simply click on the sections “Property” or “Conveyancing in Germany” in the right column of this blog.

For more information on cross border probate matters and international will preparation see the below posts by the international succession law experts of Graf & Partners LLP:

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Solicitor_SchmeilzlThe law firm Graf & Partners and its German-English litigation department GP Chambers was established in 2003 and has many years of experience with British-German and US-German probate matters, including the representation of clients in contentious probate matters.

We also advise and represent foreign clients who wish to purchase, sell or lease property in Germany. In case you would like to obtain specific advice on a specific case or need assistance in buying, selling or leasing property in Germany, please contact German solicitor Bernhard Schmeilzl, LL.M. (Leicester) at +49 941 463 7070.

Workshop “Clients with Foreign Assets” for British Inheritance & Probate Lawyers

Why would an English or Scottish solicitor even give a toss about German or Spanish inheritance tax laws or about French or Italian forced heirship rules? Well, for starters, in order to avoid the client’s survivors yelling at him/her some years later because they ran into probate or/and foreign tax problems abroad.

Or, and this is of course the far better reason, to really impress your client with advice on international aspects of estate planning the client would otherwise never have thought of. Are you a solicitor or accountant who advises British clients with assets abroad or relatives living outside the UK? Then you might want to check whether you were already aware of some of the tripwires described in this post on international estate planning and will preparation.

Estate Planning for International Families requires seeing the big Picture

A solicitor who knows the basic principles of other jurisdiction’s succession rules and inheritance tax concepts is much more valuable to his client because such a solicitor can avoid structuring English Wills which may have counterproductive consequences in other countries.

The standard advice given by many English solicitors is still: “If you own assets abroad make a separate Will in each of those countries”. Well, this is simply not enough because such wills need to be synchronised both from a practical probate perspective and in regards to the overall inheritance tax consequences. Also, sometimes the better choice is to deal with the foreign assets directly in the English will.

Since 2003, the succession and tax lawyers of Graf & Partner specialise in international estate planning and will preparation with a strong focus on British-German, American-German, British-Austrian and American-Austrian inheritance cases and probate applications. German lawyer Bernhard Schmeilzl regularly gives presentations and conducts inhouse seminars for British and American lawyers and accountants who advise clients who possess foreign assets or who have relatives abroad who shall inherit or receive gifts or legacies. More on these seminars here: Advising Clients with Assets Abroad

The goal of our seminars on international inheritance and tax law is not to make the English solicitor a Jack of all trades or to expose the solicitor to liability risks. Instead, the goal is to give the solicitor a basic idea about where the English estate planning approach might cause problems elsewhere and then team up with the respective experts from those countries to find the best overall solution for the client and his family.

To give you an impression of the case studies we discuss in our workshops here are a few slides taken from our 90 page power point presentation: Presentation Wills and Estate Planning for International Clients

For more information on German-British or Austrian-British probate matters and international will preparation see the below posts by the international succession law experts of Graf & Partners LLP:

Or simply click on the “German Probate” section in the right column of this blog.

Our Munich Office has relocated

Same district, but larger and more modern offices!

Since 1st of June you can find our Munich lawyers in the modern and centrally located Agendis Business Center building on Radlkoferstr. 2. We are looking forward to meeting you in our new office! For those clients who specifically chose our firm because we were located right next to the Octoberfest area: Relax, the new office is only 500 meters south-west of the old one. So you can still drop by the Octoberfest if you feel like having a beer after having listened to our lawyers. Read more on our firm’s website.

Purchase German Property by Online Auction?

Beware of buying German real estate through the internet. It does not work that way in Germany!

Our firm specalises in German-British and German-Amercian legal matters. Thus, we are sometimes contacted by non-German clients who proudly tell us that they have just successfully bought German property by way of online auction, for example from “MIDLAND ASSET MANAGEMENT LTD” or another online auction service provider.

There is just one small problem with this: In order to be valid, German law requires any agreement regarding property transactions (sale of real estate) to be recorded by a German notary (or a German consular officer abroad), see section 873 German Civil Code (Conveyancing):

Section 873 Acquisition of Property by Agreement and Registration in the German Land Registry

(1) The transfer of the ownership of a plot of land, the encumbrance of a plot of land with a right and the transfer or encumbrance of such a right require agreement between the person entitled and the other person on the occurrence of the change of rights and the registration of the change of rights in the Land Register, except insofar as otherwise provided by law.

(2) Before the registration, the parties are bound by the agreement only if the declarations are notarially recorded, or made before the Land Registry, or submitted to the Land Registry, or if the person entitled has delivered to the other person an approval of registration that satisfies the provisions of the Land Register Code [Grundbuchordnung].

 

Thus, any “only auction” of German real estate (plots of land, apartments, houses) is not legally binding at all. It can merely be regarded, at best, as a non-binding letter of intent. If the owner changes his mind, for instance because he found another bidder who is willing to pay more, the online buyer has zero rights.

However, the online auction service providers usually do not explain this non-binding nature of the auction at all. To the contrary, they make it sound as if the “online buyer” is legally entitled to demand property transfer or that the buyer even automatically becomes the owner upon completion of the auction.

Midland Asset Management, for example, only hints at “certain formal requirements” which need to be taken care of. Well, no kidding! The seller and the buyer must appear in person before a German notary (or a consular officer) to actually sign the real sale deed. Everything else is just an empty promise. Buyers usually are not aware of these formal conveyancing requirements and the travel costs, notary fees and translation costs connected with all that.

But, and this is the risky and potentially fraudulent aspect, the online auction service providers do require the “buyer” to pay the full purchase price for the German property up front, i.e. before the sale is officially recorded by a German notary. See, for example, the auction ad by Midland Asset Management on Bidspotter.co.uk:

If, for any reason, the actual sale at the notary’s office does not happen, then the buyer has only a rather weak “undue enrichment” claim against the online auction provider, unless fraud can be proven. Let alone the fact that these providers are often limited companies with virtual offices.

Therefore, do NOT try to purchase German real estate online. But if you absolutely must, do not pay the full purchase price upfront. Instead, inform the online service provider that you are aware of the German conveyancing laws and formal requirements of seeing a notary and discuss with the service provider how this can be effected. If the service provider then runs or tries to avoid this issue, you know that you deal with a shady or incompetent partner.

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More information on buying property in Germany, the German Land Registry and conveyancing process and the rights and duties of tenants and landlords in Germany is available in these posts:

Or simply click on the sections “Property” or “Conveyancing in Germany” in the right column of this blog.

Does a German Last Will & Testament become void if the Testator later marries or has Children?

Not automatically, but the surviving spouse and/or the child may challenge the Will for being “outdated”. The German legal term is “Anfechtung” according to section 2079 German Civil Code (Section Wills & Probate), which states:

Section 2079 German Civil Code

Avoidance for omission of a person entitled to a compulsory portion

A testamentary disposition may be avoided if the testator has omitted a person entitled to a compulsory portion who is in existence at the time of the devolution of the inheritance, the existence of whom was unknown to the testator when he made the testamentary disposition or who was born or became entitled to a compulsory portion only after the making of the testamentary disposition. Avoidance is excluded to the extent that it is to be assumed that the testator would have made the disposition even if he had known the circumstances.

This statute of German probate law is a so called “Auslegungsregel” (i.e. statutory rule of interpretation of a Will). It is meant to clarify this situation: The testator has made his or her Will at a time when he/she was not married, then later marries but does not modify or revoke the Will, then dies. In these circumstances, if German succession law applies, the Will shall be interpreted as being valid but voidable (anfechtbar). The surviving spouse may challenge this Will by making a formal declaration of avoidance (Anfechtungserklärung) to the competent German probate court. This must be done within a statutory deadline of one year from when the person entitled to challenge the Will has obtained knowledge of the grounds of avoidance.

The same rule applies if the testator has children after setting up a Will under German law. Then the child has the right to void the German will which the testator has created at a time when he or she did not know about this child.

However, this rule of interpretation does not apply if there is no room for such interpretation. If, for example, the testator has explicitly stated in the German Will that this Will shall remain valid even if he or she later marries or has (further) children, then section 2079 German Civil Code cannot be invoked. If the Will itself is silent on the matter but the testator has mentioned that the Will shall remain valid in such situations, then it becomes difficult. Such contentious probate cases can drag on for years in German courts and usually the party invoking section 2079 German Civil Code prevails.

Spouses in Germany often create mirror wills (Berliner Testament, Ehegattentestament) and explicitly preclude (ausschließen) this section 2079 BGB, because they want to protect themselves against the Will being voided if the surviving spouse later marries again or has additional children.

For more information on cross border probate matters, international will preparation and German inheritance tax matters see the below posts by the international succession law and tax law experts of German law firm Graf & Partners LLP:

Or simply click on the “German Probate” section in the right column of this blog.

The Anglo-German law firm Graf & Partners and its German-English litigation department GP Chambers was established in 2003 and has many years of experience with British-German and US-German probate and tax matters, including the representation of clients in contentious probate matters. We are experts ininternational succession matters, probate and inheritance law. If you wish us to advise or represent you in a German or cross border inheritance case please contact German solicitor Bernhard Schmeilzl, LL.M. (Leicester) at +49 941 463 7070.

Pursuing Legal Action in Germany?

You found the German law firm perfectly equipped to address your legal needs in Germany

Since 2003, German law firm Graf & Partners specialises in providing legal advice and litigation services to British and American clients. The majority of our clients come from Britain, the USA or other English speaking countries and are in need of pursuing a legal matter in Germany. If you need a competent and trustworthy attorney anywhere in Germany, our experienced contract lawyers and bilingual litigators will be happy to assist.

The firm’s managing partner Bernhard Schmeilzl and several other lawyers in our litigation team have studied and worked in the USA and/or Britain. As a result, Graft & Partners have established a unique and impressive international legal practice, which focuses specifically on British-German and German-American legal cases and issues. Our Anglo-German lawyer team is headed by British and Canadian citizen Elissa Jelowicki, a qualified English solicitor, and Registered European Lawyer, admitted to the Munich Bar Association. Therefore, foreign clients and instructing lawyers from the UK and America are able to discuss their specific case with a native English speaker, who also knows the English legal system.

Our German and British litigation lawyers appear before German law Courts throughout the country and are also experienced in (Commercial) Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution. We provide specialist legal advice, support and forensic services in all commercial and civil law matters, ranging from contract disputes, corporate litigation and employment, to damage claims and contentious probate. In addition, our family law experts deal with international divorces and child custody matters. In relation to other legal areas, e.g. criminal law or tax, we will be happy to recommend qualified German lawyers from other chambers, who are also fluent in English.

On a regular basis, we speak on German-American and British-German legal issues at lawyer conventions and at in-house events of international companies and law firms. See here for some of the topics we have spoken on recently:

More information on litigation and legal fees in Germany is available in these posts:

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Call the experts on German-British and German-American legal matters

Since 2003, the German law firm Graf Partners LLP with its headquarters in Munich specialises in British-German and US-German legal cases. Our German lawyers are fluent in English, have many years of practical experience with clients from Britiain and the USA and are part of a well established network of law, tax and accounting firms.

Bernhard Schmeilzl_crop1Managing partner Bernhard Schmeilzl was admitted as German Rechtsanwalt (attorney at law) to the Munich Bar in 2001 and specialises in international cases ever since, especially German-American and German-English commercial and probate cases. In addition to obtaining his German legal exams with distinction, he also graduated from the English University of Leicester where he obtained his Master of Laws degree in EU Commercial Law in 2003. 

In 2014, Graf Partners LLP has set up the international litigation department GP Chambers which focuses on providing professional litigation services to British and US-American clients, both on a commercial and a private client level. The Graf Partners litigation lawyers regularly appear before German law Courts throughout the country and provide specialist legal advice, support and advocacy services in all commercial and civil law matters, ranging from contract disputes, corporate litigation and employment, to damage claims, divorces and contentious probate. If you wish us to advise or represent you in a German or cross border case, or if you need an expert report on German law, please call +49 941 463 7070.

Pitfalls of German Law (Part 2)

Be careful when suing a German Kommanditgesellschaft (KG), an Offene Handelsgesellschaft (OHG) or a Gesellschaft bürgerlichen Rechts (GBR)

The single most common mistake foreign claimants and their non-German litigation lawyers make when taking a German business to court is that they only sue the partnership itself and not the personally liable partners (persönlich haftende Gesellschafter).

To avoid any misunderstanding: This post deals with German partnerships (Personengesellschaften) as debtors, not with German limited liability companies (GmbH) or German corporations (Aktiengesellschaft). If the debtor is a German company, then – normally – only the company itself can be sued, not the company’s shareholders. There may be special circumstances when a director of even a shareholder may be personally liable for a company debt (piercing the company veil, in German: Durchgriffshaftung), but this is the exception to the rule.

The situation is entirely different with German partnerships, which come in four different shapes and forms:

  • Kommanditgesellschaft (KG), mostly in the form of a GmbH & Co KG
  • Offene Handelsgesellschaft (OHG)
  • Gesellschaft bürgerlichen Rechts (GbR), also called BGB-Gesellschaft
  • Partnerschaftsgesellschaft (PartG)

What these German partnerships have in common is that there is at least one partner who is liable for all business debts with his entire personal property (Privatvermögen). The relevant statute is section 128 German Commercial Code (§ 128 Handelsgesetzbuch). With regard to the OHG and the GbR all partners are fully liable. With regard to the Kommanditgesellschaft (KG) there are two kinds of partners: fully liable partners (Komplementäre) and limited partners (Kommanditisten), who are only liable up to the amount they have invested.

Now, if you (or your client) have a claim against such a German KG, OHG, GbR or PartG, the biggest mistake you can make is to sue only the partnership itself. This is because with a court order against the partnership you can only enforce your claim against the partnership, i.e. the business assets of said partnership. In many cases, however, it is likely that there are no longer any business assets to go after as the partnership is doing poorly or has even folded.

In these circumstances, you will naturally want to go after the personally liable partners of the partnership. And, you can. But only if you have listed them as joint and several co-debtors (Gesamtschuldner) in your lawsuit against the partnership.

If you (or your litigation lawyer) have not done this, then the court order cannot be enforced against the partners. You will have to start a new lawsuit all over again. In some cases, you may of course face limitation problems by then (German limitation periods are explained here).

Thus, whether you sue the German partnership in Germany or abroad, you must ensure that you do not only list the partnership itself as a defendant but also every personally liable partner which you may want to enforce the court order against at a later stage. Psychologically, this puts much more presure on the defendants and thus increases the chances of payment or a favourable settlement agreement. By the way: the lawsuit costs are not increased by co-suing the partners. So there is no reason whatsoever not to include them in your court claim.

See here for other “Pitfalls of German Law“.

More information on litigation and legal fees in Germany is available in these posts:

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The law firm Graf & Partners was established in 2003 and has many years of experience with British-German and US-German legal matters.The Anglo-German litigation lawyer team of GP Chambers is well equipped to advise and represent clients from the UK, the USA and other English speaking countries. If you wish us to advise or represent you in a German or cross border case, or if you need an expert report on German law, please call +49 941 463 7070 in order to contact German lawyer Bernhard Schmeilzl, LL.M. (Leicester), managing partner and head of the litigation department. Bernhard is also frequently asked by British and US Courts and Tribunals or by legal counsels to provide expert reports and legal opinions on German law.

Pitfalls of German Contract Law and German Company Regulations (Part 1)

Foreign Contract Lawyers beware of surprising German Laws and Directives!

The German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, BGB, available in English), the German Commercial Code (Handelsgesetzbuch, HGB, partly available in English), the German Act on Corporations (Aktiengesetz, AktG) and the Act on Limited Liability Companies (GmbHG, available in English) are all full of surprising regulations which can essentially void any agreement or deed drafted by a naive (in the nicest sense) British or US lawyer who is unfamiliar with the specifics of codified German Civil and Commercial Law. Therefore, this article is to make you aware of some of the dangerous pitfalls that you can face when entering into a German agreement. In this post we explain some peculiarities of German contract law which, if not known, can cost non-German in-house lawyers their job and can create liability risks for any foreign contract lawyer.

Some examples? Sure: Did you know, for instance, that giving notice under German law is usually only legally effective, if an original wet ink copy of the letter of termination (written notice) is handed to the employee, tenant, business partner etc? Providing notice by email, fax or orally, has not effect. Or, did you know that under German family law rules, contracts entered into by one spouse are not valid unless and until the other spouse provides his or her consent? Or have you heard about the German legal principle that a unilateral confirmation of contract letter (kaufmännisches Bestätigungsschreiben) sent from one merchant to the other becomes a binding contract if the confirmation letter is not immediately rejected by the recipient of the letter? You may agree, that this is probably rather helpful information if you are dealing with a German contractual partner or if you are the legal counsel of the non-German contractual party.

Don’t be tricked by German Law(yers)!

The following clarifies some statutes and German legal principles any British Solicitor, American Attorney-at-Law and non-German businessman should know before engaging in business in good old Germany:

This statute baffles not only many foreign lawyers (especially from Common Law jurisdictions), but is also often unknown to young German contract lawyers. Section 174 BGB is contained in the “general section” (allgemeiner Teil) of the German Civil Code, which means it applies to all areas of German civil law. In practice, the statute’s somewhat cryptic wording means that if someone acts as attorney, proxy agent or delegate for somebody else, the attorney must present the original, i.e. the wet ink copy of the power of attorney document signed by the constituent (principal). A simple copy, a fax or a scan are not sufficient. The consequences of breaching this law are particularly severe in the area of “unilateral legal acts” (einseitiges Rechtsgeschäft), i.e. if the attorney gives written notice to someone on behalf of the individual or company, or if the attorney sends out a demand note, a dunning letter or a cease and desist letter. All these legal actions have no effect if the attorney does not enclose an original (wet ink) power of representation document (and thus, if not, the recipient can and in most circumstances rejects the letter). Naturally, such notices and legal actions are often made by lawyers for their clients. Thus, the client will not be amused if it turns out that the lawyer’s written notice to the unwanted employee is ineffective for lack of an original power of attorney document. Or if the termination of an agreement is rendered to be too late because the notice period has been missed due to an invalid letter of termination. In our firm, we have have had numerous cases where an agreement, which could only be terminated every 5 years, prolonged for such a period, because a lawyer or another representative of one contractual party tried to terminate the said German agreement without presenting an original POA.

So, what to do as a lawyer? Well, best is to obtain an original POA from the client and enclose it in the letter. If this is not practical or would take too long, then an easy trick to circumvent section 174 German Civil Code is to ask the client to inform the opponent in Germany directly about the fact that the lawyer has been instructed to act on the client’s behalf (see the last sentence of the statute: “Rejection is excluded if the principal notified the other of the authorisation”). For this, strangely, German law does not require written form, so an email or fax from principal to opponent is sufficient. The law is not always entirely logical!

This brief statute appears quite harmless, but can have disastrous effects for one or even both contractual parties if overlooked during negotiations. Simply put, this statute means that an agent (anyone authorised by someone else to act on his behalf, in German a Vertreter) can and may not – at the same time – act (i) in his or her own name or (ii) as agent for another party. May sound cryptic, but does often happen in practice, as you can see from these examples: (1) A managing director of a German company wishes to invest in the company or wishes to buy an asset of said company for himself. (2) A managing director of a company is asked by an investor to represent the investor at a meeting.

Believe it or not: Regardless of which marital property regime you live in, under German law one spouse cannot enter into contracts without the express consent of the other spouse if the contract covers the vast majority of one’s fortune. Sounds cryptic again? Well, here is an everyday example: A husband owns property which is worth more than 80 or 90% of his entire fortune. If he wishes to sell this property, the deed of sale is not valid unless the other spouse co-signs the notarial deed providing their consent to the same. The same is true if one spouse tries to sell a business or another asset which constitutes the majority of that spouse’s fortune.

As a purchaser of German property or of the shares of a German company owned by that spouse you would probably like to know if that asset makes up the vast majority of that person’s wealth and you would want to make sure that the spouse does agree to the transaction. Otherwise, the deal could explode years later.

  • Contradicting General Terms (AGB), no “last shot doctrine”

In contrast to most Common Law jurisdictions, German Civil Law does not apply the last shot doctrine when it comes to general terms and conditions. Instead, if parties reject each other’s general terms, then neither terms apply to the extent they contradict each other. Instead, the default statutory provisions apply. This can lead to significantly different results depending on whether German or British or US law applies to a business transaction.

  • Confirmation letter between merchants (“kaufmännisches Bestätigungsschreiben”)

Another speciality of German commercial law is the so called “kaufmännisches Bestätigungsschreiben”, i.e. the confirmation letter between merchants. This legal principle of German law means that if merchants orally discuss a deal or transaction, and one party does confirm what that party believes the oral agreement was, then the content of the confirmation letter becomes legally binding unless the other party rejects the content of the confirmation letter without undue delay (ohne schuldhaftes Zögern), which in practice means 2-5 business days. Thus, if you are doing business with Germans, do not ignore letters you receive from the German business partner, even if you think that what they “confirm” in that letter is nonsense. A binding contract can come into existence without you ever signing a piece of paper or expressly re-confirming the terms.

  • How expensive are German lawyers? What is the Rechtsanwaltsvergütungsgesetz (RVG)? Fee agreement clauses of German lawyers with their clients

Clients and lawyers from outside Germany usually assume that legal fees need to be agreed on when they hire a German legal counsel and – until they sign a fee agreement – they do not enter into any financial obligations. You could not be more wrong. Because, to the surprise of many non-German clients, lawyer fees are regulated by statutory provisions. These fees can be significantly higher or lower compared to hourly rates in Common Law jurisdictions, because the German lawyer fees do depend on the value of the legal dispute, not so much on the amount of time spent on the case. So, if you hire a German lawyer because a debtor does not pay a debt worth EUR 500,000, the German lawyer writes one short letter and the debtor immediately pays, then the German lawyer has earned legal fees of approximately EUR 5,000 in spite of having only spent 30 minutes on the case. If the debt is only EUR 5,000 and the lawyer has to write numerous letters, make dozens of phone calls until the debtor pays, then the German lawyer earns only EUR 350, in spite of having spent 3-5 hours on the case. The thinking behind this German lawyer fee table is that the wealthier German clients shall pay higher fees and shall thus subsidize the legal costs of clients who claim only small amounts. In theory, on average it will level out for German lawyers. In practice, however, qualified German lawyers, especially experts in international law, will not accept a case unless the client is willing to pay hourly fees comparable to those in Britain and larger cities in the USA. More on the issue of German legal fees and lawyer remuneration here.

To be continued ……

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Experts on German-British and German-American Legal Matters

Since 2003, the German law firm Graf Partners LLP with its headquarters in Munich specialises in British-German and US-German legal cases. Our German lawyers are fluent in English, have many years of practical experience with clients from Britiain and the USA and are part of a well established network of law, tax and accounting firms.

Bernhard Schmeilzl_crop1Managing partner Bernhard Schmeilzl was admitted as German Rechtsanwalt (attorney at law) to the Munich Bar in 2001 and specialises in international cases ever since, especially German-American and German-English commercial and probate cases. In addition to obtaining his German legal exams with distinction, he also graduated from the English University of Leicester where he obtained his Master of Laws degree in EU Commercial Law in 2003. But do not mistake Bernhard for a German lawyer who focuses merely on German-British legal matters.

In 2014, Graf Partners LLP has set up the international litigation department GP Chambers which focuses on providing professional litigation services to British and US-American clients, both on a commercial and a private client level. The Graf Partners litigation lawyers regularly appear before German law Courts throughout the country and provide specialist legal advice, support and advocacy services in all commercial and civil law matters, ranging from contract disputes, corporate litigation and employment, to damage claims, divorces and contentious probate. If you wish us to advise or represent you in a German or cross border case, or if you need an expert report on German law, please call +49 941 463 7070.

German-American Law Firm based in Munich

Need a German lawyer who knows how to swing a baseball bat? 

Looking for a German lawyer who is aware of the fact that “morning joe” is not a coffee brand and that “take me out to the ball game” does not refer to soccer fans? Look no further. The lawyers of the Munich based German corporate, litigation and probate law firm Graf & Partners LLP specialise in German American legal issues since 2003.

Better Call Berny

Founding member and managing partner Bernhard Schmeilzl, LL.M. (Leicester) was admitted to the German Bar in 2001 and specialises in German-American and German-British legal matters ever since, especially in German-American and German-English commercial and probate cases. In addition to obtaining his German law degree in 1999 and taking his German bar exam in 2001 (both with distinction), he also graduated from the English University of Leicester where he obtained his Master of Laws degree in Commercial Law in 2003. But do not mistake Bernhard for a German lawyer who focuses merely on German-British legal matters.

German Litigation Lawyer with a Lifetime Batting Average of .370

Between 1990 and 1998, Bernhard has spent a total of 2 years in the United States, working as a summer camp counsellor in New Jersey, an assistant German teacher at Lawrenceville prep school near Trenton, New Jersey, as a baseball coach in Arizona and later as a trainee lawyer in New York and San Diego, California. Bernhard played and coached baseball for more than 20 years and insists to have achieved a lifetime batting average of .370, but we suspect he counted in little league and private backyard ball in that statistic.

After Bernhard qualified as a German contract lawyer and commercial litigation attorney with the Munich bar association, he has specialised in US-German legal matters and has built a network of US-American lawyers who also specialise in German-American corporate and commercial law, international sports law, German-American probate cases and international estate administration.

Therefore, while Bernhard is well acquainted with the ways of English solicitors and barristers and their respective ways to go about a legal case, he is even better equipped to team up with United States attorneys at law.

In 2014, Graf Partners LLP has set up the international litigation department GP Chambers which focuses on providing professional litigation services to British and US-American clients, both on a commercial and a private client level. The Graf Partners litigation lawyers regularly appear before German law Courts throughout the country and provide specialist legal advice, support and advocacy services in all commercial and civil law matters, ranging from contract disputes, corporate litigation and employment, to damage claims, divorces and contentious probate.

So, if you need a German lawyer who did not just have English in school, but who really speaks your language and knows where you are coming from, contact the experts on German-American and German-British law:

gp-logoa German limited liability partnership of German lawyers admitted to the Munich Bar Association (Rechtsanwaltskammer) with the right to represent clients in all courts of law throughout Germany, registered with the District Court Munich, Partnership Register Nr. 438, represented by its managing partners Bernhard Schmeilzl and Katrin Groll.

Our central switchboard number in Germany is: +49 (0) 941 463 7070

For more information about civil litigation in Germany see these posts: