How to get access to an Estate under German Inheritance Law
When a UK citizen dies while having possessions in Germany (bank accounts, deposits, shares, insurance claims or property), one must first determine whether the estate is governed by German hereditary law and thus falls into the competence of German probate courts:
Basically, both from a UK and a German legal perspective this depends on where the deceased was domiciled, i.e. the place where a person has his or her permanent principal home to which he or she does (or at least intends to) return. In other words: the concept of domicile (in German “Lebensmittelpunkt”) is more than residence (in German “Wohnsitz”). While a person can have several places of residence, there can only be one domicile. Still, it may in some cases be difficult to determine domicile, for example: An expat leaves the UK for Germany, initially with the intention to go back after one year, then he prolongs his stay and his family joins him, still with the idea to move back to the UK in the future; another few years later (his wife has a job in Germany and his kids attend a German school) the expat dies in a car accident. Was he still domiciled in the UK or in Germany?
In most cases, however, it is quite obvious where a person had his or her domicile at the time of death. According to international private law rules of both UK and Germany the issue of domicile decides whether UK or German material hereditary law applies and also which country may tax – in principle – the entire estate.
Let’s assume the deceased UK citizen had his domicile in Germany and had belongings in both countries. Applying the rules of international private hereditary law leads to this:
- From a German legal perspective, German inheritance law (including German inheritance tax law) applies to the entire estate, i.e. all moveables and immoveables everywhere.
- English law agrees to this German view insofar as moveables within the UK (bank accounts, shares, goods, etc.) are concerned: They are – also from an English point of view – indeed seen as subject to German material hereditary law. This results from the UK international private law rules referring to the testator’s “domicile” law.
- However, any real estate in the UK is governed by English material hereditary law (following the principle of “lex rei sitae”).
German substantive law of succession and the major differences between English and German inheritance law are explained here, including the issue of the infamous German “forced or compulsory share” of close relatives and inheritance tax rules) .
German Probate Proceedings explained
Regarding probate procedures: The heirs will have to apply for grants of probate in both countries separately because neither Germany nor the UK accepts probate documents from the respective other foreign courts (see here).
In case you would like 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.