Does marriage automatically void previous wills under German law?
Not automatically, but the surviving spouse and/or the child may challenge the Will for being “outdated”.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.
Exceptions to the rule
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:
- Brochure on German Probate and German Inheritance Tax (in English)
- Most Germans die without a Will (German Intestacy Rules)
- Formal Requirements to set up a valid Will in England, Scotland and Germany: What are the Differences?
- The Perils of German IHT and Gift Tax
- How to access German assets without going through Probate
- Careful with Deed of Variation if Estate comprises Foreign Assets
- Basics of German Inheritance and Succession Law
- Executors and Trustees in German Inheritance Law
- How to apply for a German Grant of Probate
- The Infamous German Community of Heirs – And how to avoid it
- Germans Heirs are Personally Liable for Debts of the Deceased
- International Wills and Estate Planning for British-German Families
- Prove German Wills for English Probate
- Disputed Wills and Contentious Probate in Germany
- Disinherit your no-good children? Not so easy in Germany
- Don’t be afraid of Clients with Foreign Assets!
- Can foreign Taxes be set off against UK Inheritance Tax?
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.