Inheritance Law in Japan

Find out about how Japanese inheritance works, the different types of legal consent, documents needed and how foreign laws affect inheritance in Japan...

Inheriting from People Born Outside Japan

The Japanese laws regarding inheritance are applicable only if the nationality of the deceased is Japanese. In other words, if the deceased was a foreign national, Japanese laws are not applicable but the laws of their home country are.

In the case of a beneficiary who is the legitimate successor of a foreigner who had assets in Japan such as real estate, the beneficiary could be eligible to inherit the assets in principle. This is provided the succession is legal both in the deceased's home country and Japan.

However, the legal procedures of succession have to be done according to the laws concerned in the home country of the deceased, no matter how many years the deceased lived in Japan or even if the deceased had permanent residency (eiju-sya) before dying. In other words, the successor will need to procure legal documents to verify their right to inherit the assets. These documents will have to be certified and issued by the relevant authorities in the deceased's home country, and are required in particular when making applications at the Legal Affairs Bureau (houmu-kyoku) in Japan to register real estate inherited.

Legal procedures of real estate registration may be difficult and time-consuming. This is because laws regarding inheritance are different between countries, including the deceased's home country and Japan, so even the Legal Affairs Bureau of Japan would be unable to specify in advance what kind of documents successors will need to procure from the deceased's home country. Also, it is not possible to predict in advance whether those documents are enough to verify a beneficiary’s rights upon registration at the Legal Affairs Bureau of Japan.

This actually means that it may be necessary to hire lawyers both in Japan and in the deceased's home country to take care of document preparations in each country. Our experience as a firm reflects this.

The basic rules described above are still applicable even if the beneficiaries of a foreigner who died in Japan are Japanese nationals. If the beneficiary is a Japanese national and the legitimate successor of a foreigner who died in Japan, the laws of the deceased's home country would still be applicable. As such, the relevant legal procedures according to the foreign governing laws also apply, such as the eligibility and rights of successors, how to verify them, the shares of each successor, procedures for leaving wills and ways of assessing their validity. Needless to say, the laws of all countries are different, so the laws of the deceased's home country regarding inheritance will be different from Japan's. Some countries stipulate that the laws governing inheritance are those of the country where the deceased had resided before dying, those of the country where their properties are located or those of the successors’ home country, but there are other possibilities.

If the laws of the deceased’s home country stipulate that the governing laws are eventually those of Japan, the legal procedures of inheritance will be those of Japan. However, even in this case it is likely that the relevant authorities, such as the Legal Affairs Bureau, will need to be provided with relevant information and documents to verify that the deceased's home country stipulates that the laws governing inheritance should eventually be those of Japan.

Inheriting from Japanese Citizens who Died in Japan

If the deceased were Japanese nationals, including foreign-born naturalised citizens of Japan, the inheritance is in principle to proceed according to Japanese law. However, if the successor is an infant, it may be necessary to check the laws of the successor's home country, too.

The basic rules under Japanese inheritance law are as follows:

Successors

  • Primary Successors: the spouse and children (including adopted children) of the deceased. Grandchildren can be beneficiaries only if the children (the parents of the grandchild) were dead when the inheritance commenced.
  • Secondary Successors: the parents of the deceased (who may inherit only when there are no primary successors).
  • Tertiary Successors: brothers and sisters of the deceased (who may be beneficiaries only when there are neither primary nor secondary successors).

Distribution

  • Distribution of the inheritance amongst primary successors is as follows: 50 percent to the spouse, and the rest is divided equally between each child.

Consent

  • Consent by successors: there are two elements that can be inherited - assets such as cash, bank deposits and real estate that have positive values, and debts, which have negative values.

Meanwhile, there are two ways for successors to consent how to inherit: simple consent (tanjun-syonin) and limited consent (gentei-syonin). Simple consent is to accept the whole inheritance, including debts and assets. Limited consent is to accept debts with a limitation up to the value of the assets. That means that if the deceased had debts of $150,000 and assets of $100,000, the successor can be exempted from the balance of debts of $50,000, having offset debts against assets under limited consent. In the case that successors want to choose limited consent, all of the successors together (not one by one) need to make an application for limited consent to a family court (katei-saiban-syo).

Renunciation

Renouncing inheritance rights: if a successor wants to renounce their inheritance rights, they need to apply to do so at a family court within three months of the date they came to know that they were a successor, and not within three months of the date that the inheritance commenced. Renouncing inheritance can be done individually, rather than as a group.

Further Information

These are the very basics of inheritance in Japan. However, there are many more stipulations regarding inheritance under Japanese law, international law and the laws of foreign countries to take into consideration in each individual case.

Therefore, I would recommend that all those who need to prepare their estate or go through inheritance procedures consult an experienced professional in the field.

  • For more information in on leaving a will in Japan: Click here
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