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.
German Probate Proceedings explained
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). 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).
For more information on German-British probate matters and international will preparation see the below posts by the international succession law experts of Graf & Partners LLP:
- 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
- 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 enter “probate” or “inheritance” in the search box above.
The 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 matters, including the representation of clients in contentious probate matters. We are experts ininternational succession matters, probate and inheritance law, including international litigation. 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.