Prove German Wills for English Probate

To an English lawyer, a German style will is shockingly short and informal. Typical wording in a German will would be:

“Testament: I appoint as my sole heir my dear son Franz Meyer. Munich, 24 December 2000, Fritz Meyer”

Even the following text would satisfy the German Probate court that it constitutes a fully valid German will:

“My Wife gets everything. Hans Muller”

Yes, this is a valid German will, although neither the name of the wife is stated nor a date given. When it comes to wills, German lawyers are extremely tolerant and informal. German courts have accepted wills written on envelopes or napkins, in diaries or in letters addressed to other people. Section 2084 German Civil Code stresses:

Interpretation favouring effectiveness: If the contents of a testamentary disposition permit more than one interpretation, then in case of doubt preference is to be given to the interpretation under which the disposition may be effective.

In other words: If the judge can grasp the testator’s intention then it does not matter if the wording of the will is legally imprecise.

German law makes it very easy to set up a will (see the relevant part of German Civil Code on making and revocation of a German Will here). Due to the principle of universal and direct succession (details here) there is no need for a personal representative. A German heir, so to speak, is his/her own executor.

Under German succession law, there is also no requirement for anyone to witness the document. In fact, in contrast, Germans consider it a strange concept that they should have to present a document as personal as a last will to other people for them to witness. A testament in Germany is considered highly confidential.

Thus, the only two requirements for a valid German Will are:

(i) the Will must be fully hand written by the testator (him-/herself) and signed at the end (so called holographic will, see here) which proves that the content actually does stem from the testator. Dating the document is of course highly recommended, but if the date is missed, this does not make the will invalid.

(ii) the Will must clearly state who shall be the heir or (if more than one person) the heirs. However, it is not required to mention the technical term “heir”. As long as a benevolent reader (i.e. the probate judge) can understand what the testator intended, the will is regarded as being accepted.

If the testator possessed assets in the United Kingdom, the heirs / beneficiaries will need to obtain an English Grant of Probate in order to be able to access those assets. In such cases, the English Probate Registry must be convinced of the following:

(i) that the German style will is valid; and

(ii) what it means as regards to the administration of UK assets, because – as explained above – a German style will is usually silent on the issue of administration. The same is true if the testator was domiciled in the UK but has made – for whatever reasons – a German style (i.e. handwritten) will.

In these cases the heirs / beneficiaries should first investigate whether the testator actually possessed assets in Germany at the time of death. If so, the heir (or in this case the UK administrator) will need to obtain German probate (Certificate of Inheritance = Erbschein). This procedure may automatically prove the will to the satisfaction of English Probate Court because the German Probate Court (Nachlassgericht) will confirm that the will is valid under German law and what its content is. However, if no assets exist in Germany (i.e. there is no need for a German Certificate of Inheritance), then our firm can prove the Will by giving a qualified legal opinion.

More on German Wills and (contentious or non-contentious) Probate in these postings:

– How to renounce (disclaim) Inheritance in Germany
– Disputed Wills and Contentious Probate in Germany
– German heirs are personally liable for all debts relating to deceased relatives

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The law office Graf & Partners and its litigation department GP Chambers was established in 2003 and has many years of experience with British-German and US-German 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 +49 941 785 30 53. If you need to see an English lawyer in Germany, you can arrange for a personal appointment with English solicitor Elissa Jelowicki in Munich or we can arrange for a secure video or telephone conference if you are located elsewhere. To contact Elissa please call the main office +49 (0)89 3539 6767 or Elissa’s direct landline +49 89 55054676. Or simply write an e-mail to elissa (AT)

Disputed Wills and Contentious Probate in Germany

German Litigation Expert Bernhard Schmeilzl of GP Chambers explains the Basics of Contentious Probate

In contrast to the UK, under German law there is no administration of the estate by a personal representative. Instead, the heirs (in German: Erben) have the right to administer the estate themselves. Due to the German principle of direct and universal succession, which is explained in more detail here, the heirs become heirs automatically, if they like it or not. They have to actively disclaim the inheritance before a notary or probate court official if they want to avoid the risk of being liable for the debts of the deceased with their personal pre-owned property (more on how to renounce inheritance here). A rather alien concept for lawyers from a common law jurisdiction.

Overindebted estates are rare, however. Therefore, in most cases, heirs do wish to be recognised as the rightful heirs and want to access the German estate as quickly as possible.  In spite of the fact that, due to the principle of direct and universal succession, all rights and obligations of the deceased person transfer automatically, the heir will in most cases still need a certificate of inheritance (called “Erbschein“) to prove that he has been officially recognised as rightful heir, simply because banks, insurers, land registry officials etc. will want to see such a document for their own protection. How such a German grant of probate can be obtained is explained here.

What happens if it is unclear who the rightful heirs are? Continue reading

UK Citizens with Property in Germany: Do I need a separate Will?

The Basics of British-German Inheritance Cases

When a British expat lives in Germany for some time, he or she will most probably have a German bank account and other German assets, maybe even have bought property over here. The majority of these British expats have never thought about the inheritance law implications of such foreign assets. They simply assume that UK law applies. This is, however, not always the case. Especially if German probate law and the German inheritance tax office consider the UK citizen to have been domiciled in Germany, then German law applies to the entire (global!) estate. But even if a UK citizen never sets foot on German soil but only invests here, i.e. buys property or company shares, then he / she may be in for some surprises. Or to be precise: their heirs might be.

Let us try to explain the basics of this rather complicated matter of British-German inheritance law cases, using the example of the hypothetical couple Mr and Mrs Liveabroad: Continue reading