French Wills

The key information you need regarding inheritance law and will-making in France...

The purpose of a will is to communicate the wishes of a person with regards to their personal possessions and the treatment of their remains after death. It is a document in writing which states their desired beneficiaries (within the limitations of the law). France has a system of forced heirship. A person may not freely determine who gets what. While neither children nor a surviving spouse may be bequeathed an entire estate, certain bequests to them are obligatory. A defined proportion of the estate (réserve legale) must be given to specified categories of reserved heirs (héritiers réservataires). All children (adopted and natural) are reserved heirs. A spouse is an héritiers réservataires only when there are no decending heirs (children). The remainder of an estate is disposed of without limitation (quotité disponible).

Foreigners and Wills in France

France (through the Washington Convention, 1994) recognises as valid an international will that relates to goods owned by the testator elsewhere in the world. However, it is recommended that a foreigner make a will in France in the following circumstances:
  • A foreigner living permanently in France who at the time of their death would be considered a "resident"
  • A foreigner owning immovable property in France (house, flat, land)
Non-resident foreigners with movable property only (a bank account or company shares) need not create a French will.

Qualify to Make a Will

In order to qualify to make a will a person must:
  • Be at least 18 years of age (although there are provisions for emancipated minors and for minors aged 16 to 18 to make wills)
  • Have legal ownership over the possessions bequeathed
  • Be judged mentally fit (sain d'esprit). In the event of a dispute, a court will decide on the testator's mental fitness at the time of drafting
Only goods belonging to a testator may be bequeathed; a name or an honorary title may not. Advice should be sought from a notary on the various legacies.

Types of Will

There are the three types of legally accepted will (testament) in France. The holographic will (testament olographe), authentic will (testament authentique) and the mystic will (testament mystique). Wills should be kept up to date, accurately reflecting the testator’s possessions. All wills can be altered by means of a codicil or by creating a replacement. Only the most recently created will applies.

The holographic will

This type of will - testament olographe - is inexpensive to create and requires no particular formality. However, it can be easily revoked and if any aspect of it has been incorrectly drawn up (for example if the date is incomplete) it becomes invalid. To be legal, this will must:
  • State precisely the location, day, month and year of its creation. Accurate dating is vital as this determines the most recent will in the event of there being several. It also points to a person's age at the time of drafting and therefore can be called in to account for their mental capacity in the event of a dispute
  • Be entirely handwritten by the testator only, on plain paper (ideally white paper and written in black ink)
  • Be numbered and initialled on each page
  • Be signed in full by the testator

Drafting a holographic will

The document should begin with the words: "This is my will" and then state clearly the will maker's full name.
  • Ambiguity should be avoided (phrases such as "I would like to leave my house to X"), rather state " I bequeath my house to X"
  • The full name, address and family connection (if there is one) of each person named in the will must    be clearly written
  • Full details of the executor (if one has been chosen) must be included
  • Full details of the notary (if one has been chosen) must be included
A holographic will need not be witnessed. It need not be written in French. It may be kept by the writer, by a nominee, lodged at a bank or left with a notary. It may be registered with the Fichier Central des Dispositions de Dernières Volontés (FCDDV). The FCDDV is a central database of wills recording the details of any will kept with any notaire in France. It means heirs can be quickly informed of the existence of a will relevant to them.

The authentic will

The "authentic" will (testament authentique) is made in the presence of two notaries or a notary and two witnesses. The testator dictates the will, and the notary writes or types it out. It is then read and signed in the presence of the notary by the testator and witnesses. It is kept by the notary who registers it with the central database, FCDDV (Fichier Central des Dispositions de Dernières Volontés). The authentic will is generally considered the most legally secure will. It is strongly recommended for use by foreigners in France.

The mystic will

Rarely used and considered complex by legal specialists, this will may be typed or handwritten by the testator or by someone on their behalf. It is then signed by the testator and sealed in an envelope in the presence of a notary and two witnesses. The notary creates an acte de suscription registered on the sealed will or envelope. The content remains secret until it is opened on the death of the testator.

Cancellation, Alteration and Revocation

A will may be cancelled or modified at any time. Creating a new will automatically cancel the existing document. To avoid confusion in the case of a holographic will, the original document should be destroyed. In other cases, a declaration must be made in the presence of a notary. A will may be cancelled or revoked after the death of the testator by the heirs for a variety of reasons. In all cases, legal counsel is needed.

Foreign Goods Inheritance Tax

Inheritance (death) Tax is due on an inheritance coming from a country outside France if the death occurred after 31 December 1998. As of 1 January 1999 tax is payable by a French resident on all inheritance from both within and outside France unless the resident has been fiscally resident in France for less than six years during the previous ten. Note: In the instance that French law contradicts an international convention, it is the terms of the convention that prevail.

Further Information

Will kits, with instructions for the creation of holographic wills, can be bought online (in French).