According to German inheritance law, close relatives have a right to claim a portion of the estate, even if the testator did not want to leave them anything and has consequently disinherited them. This so called “Pflichtteil” is mostly translated with “statutory share“, “forced share” or “compulsory share“. However, it is difficult to find the correct English word, because this concept does not quite exist in the English or US common law systems. And even to many German heirs this concept comes as a surprise.
The idea behind that law is that the spouse (including a same sex registered partner), the offspring (children, grandchildren etc.) and the parents of the testator shall not be excluded from the family wealth entirely, except for extreme cases like attempted murder which in practice are very rare. The testator is still free to designate any person as his heir or heirs, but if he has children, a spouse or parents, then these privileged persons are entitled to demand from the heir(s) half of what they would have inherited in an intestate situation.
For example: According to German intestacy rules a surviving spouse inherits half of the estate, the other half goes to the child (or children) of the deceased. So if a testator, who has a wife and one child, has made a will leaving everything to his wife then the child can demand 25 per cent of the entire estate.
The child must exercise this right within three years after the event of death.
The concept is sometimes criticised as being excessively patronising to the testator, but it has existed since 1900 and is not expected to be abolished anytime soon.
Now, why should this bother you as a British citizen? Well, if you live in Britain and you do not have any property in Germany it should not and you can stop reading here.
If, however, you have a house or an apartment in Germany or if you live here on a permanent basis then you should be aware that you may be bound by this concept (for details see here). This can be dangerous especially if you are on bad terms with those privileged relatives that can claim the Pflichtteil, e.g. a child in need of money. Because in these circumstances the heir may be faced with completely unexpected claims which can amount to 50 percent of the entire bequest.
For those who want to get into the legal technicalities, the relevant statutes of the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch) are available here in English language. More information on German succession law is available here
If you wish to obtain specific advice in a concrete case or assistance in German probate procedures, feel free to contact the lawyers of the German firm Graf & Partners which are specialized in British-German succession issues. Attorney Bernhard Schmeilzl has years of experience acting as executor and administrator of estates, both in the UK and in Germany.