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How long do I have to claim a German inheritance?

In international succession and probate cases, it is not unusual that one or more beneficiaries cannot be found for quite some time, either because they have left Germany many years ago and have not stayed in touch with their family, so nobody knows where they now live. Or because the heirs (especially if intestacy rules apply) are very distant relatives, for example third degree cousins, whom nobody has ever met or knows where they live, if they ever had any children etc.

In cross-border inheritance cases like these, the German probate court (Nachlassgericht) appoints an estate curator (Nachlasspfleger), usually a German lawyer (Rechtsanwalt) or tax advisor (Steuerberater) to take possession of the entire estate and administer the same on behalf of the unknown (or unfound) heirs.

The task of the estate curator is to maintain the status quo and to avoid any damages or losses. Thus, properties in Germany will usually not be sold, and bank accounts, stocks or other investments are usually also left as they are, unless there is an obvious need to make a change in the portfolio in order to avoid losses. 

The second important core task of the German estate curator, in addition to protecting the estate, is to find the heir(s), either by investigating themselves or by hiring an heir hunter firm. All this can take a while, sometimes even many years.

Can a German inheritance claim become statute-barred?

Is it possible that an heir learns about their inheritance too late? In other words, how much time does one have to make a claim against the estate in Germany? When do inheritance claims against a German estate expire?

The answer is more complex than the question suggests, because under German succession laws, there are different kinds of inheritance related claims one can have against an estate:

  1. Erbschaft, i.e. a direct inheritance
  2. Vermächtnis, i.e. a legacy, bequest, testamentary gift
  3. Pflichtteilsanspruch, i.e. forced share, compulsory share

For claims #2 (Vermächtnis) and #3 (Pflichtteil), the statute of limitation has always been 3 years. In practice, a bit more than that because these claims expire at the end of the year, i.e. on the 31st of December. So if someone learns about the claim in January of 2022, then the claim becomes time-barred on the 31st December 2025, i.e. almost 4 years later.  

If, under German law, someone becomes an heir (Erbe), either the sole heir or a co-heir (Miterbe) together with others, then – traditionally – that legal position was not subject to statute of limitations for 30 years

However, this extremely long period in the German statute of limitations for inheritance claims was modified in 2010, so one must be careful not to come across articles or blog posts which explain the situation prior to 2010. The standard 3-year statute of limitation period according to §§ 195, 199 German Civil Code now also applies to inheritance claims!

When does the clock start ticking?

This sounds short for the international situations I explained at the top of this post – and it is. However, in most cases it is not as bad as it looks at first glance. That is because the 3-year limitation period only starts from the moment the heir has knowledge (Kenntnis) of the possible inheritance claim OR if the potential heir is grossly negligent in not being aware of them (grob fahrlässige Unkenntnis). For example, if a son or grandson who lives in Australia because he fell out with his family, learns about the death of his father or grandfather through another relative or by reading an Facebook post about it, then he cannot apply to the German probate court five years later making a claim. The court would tell him that he should have dealt with the matter sooner, i.e. should have inquired whether there was a will and – if so – what the content was.  

The strict 2-year deadline for updating the German land registry

Another deadline, heirs to a German estate should keep in mind, if there is German property within estate, is the application to the German land registry (Grundbuchamt) to update the land register, i.e. to enter the heirs / beneficiaries as the new proprietors. According to section 14110 para. 1 KV GNotKG (Kostenverzeichnis Gerichts- und Notarkostengesetz) the land registry will update the record without charging any fee if the formal application to amend the German land registry information (Grundbuchberichtigung) is being submitted within two years from the date of death. This is a strict deadline, i.e. the clock really starts ticking on the date of death and there are no exceptions. Thus, this cost privilege is lost if the heirs are unknown or cannot be contacted with the 2-year period. The german land register can, of course, still be updated even if the 2 year period has elapsed, but now the heirs are faced with potentially hefty court fees. The exact amount of the costs depends on the value of the property.

For more information on German probate and German succession laws, see these posts:

For information on selling inherited German property and closing German bank accounts, see here:

The German private client law firm Graf & Partners was established in 2003 and specialises in British-German probate matters and international estate planning ever since. Contact German solicitor Bernhard Schmeilzl, LL.M. (Leicester) at +49 941 463 7070.