French inheritance: Practical tips for organising your affairs in advance

Nobody likes to think about the worst but some people rightly worry about what will happen if they die in France, particularly if they live alone and their nearest and dearest live outside of France and do not speak French. Based on years of experience helping people prepare for French probate to make things easier for their loved ones, here are some practical tips for organising your affairs.

Tip 1: Get advice about making a will (un testament)

French inheritance law may be very different from the law of the country you are most familiar with. Not having a will (intestacy) is not necessarily as problematic as it is elsewhere because the law organises who inherits in a very structured way. However, the outcome may not be at all what you would like. So before doing anything else, get advice from a suitably qualified professional adapted to your particular circumstances and needs. If you have a will in another country, you also need advice on whether it is possible, or desirable, to retain this will or whether you should draw up a French one.

Tip 2: Prepare a clearly labeled folder to keep with your important papers

Assemble a clearly labeled folder to keep with your important papers. Often people worry about how their loved ones will know what to do next particularly if they do not speak French. This concern is very legitimate and can be addressed in a straightforward way with a bit of organisation. In the folder, I suggest that you include:

-A cover letter summarising the documents and information in the folder. Explain that in France, a notaire handles the process and one should be notified of the death as soon as the death certificate (acte de décès) is available.

-A copy of the will with a translation into English. A copy is not legally valid but it is not advised that you keep the original will at home. If you draft a French one then the original should be registered with a notaire to make sure that it is safe and can be recovered. You will be given a document with the registration details so keep that (or a copy) with the copy of the will. Including contact details of all the beneficiaries will be most helpful for everybody concerned.

-The property paperwork, either the certified copy of the notarial act (acte authentique/acte de vente/acte notarial) itself or a copy of that. This will help your loved ones greatly as they will have the legal documentation for the property to hand immediately and will be able to identify which notaire holds the original paperwork. You may wish to include details about the notaire in your cover letter as you may have a suggestion for them to use a notaire other than the one who holds the paperwork (for example, if you have found a local notaire who speaks English).

-Details of a translator/interpreter who can help them.

-Details of utility providers and also information about the banks where you hold your accounts, local friends and contacts who know you and the property (gardener, cleaning lady, key holders).

-A copy of vehicle registration (carte grise) paperwork.

Obviously, you can include as much information as you think useful and adapted to your particular situation. People with animals may wish to include details and information about them, their care and what they would like to happen to them.

Tip 3: Let your nearest and dearest know what you would like for your funeral, burial or cremation (and where to find the folder!)

In France, funerals tend to happen much faster than elsewhere. You may wish to prepare in advance by contacting a local funeral home about your wishes and even taking out a contract with them. Include those details in your folder but do let your nearest and dearest know in advance what you would like (there is no time to wait for the will to be opened for your wishes to be known). The shorter timeframe means that friends and family can be under pressure to make big decisions very quickly in a country and language unfamiliar to them. Not only do these concern ceremonies but also cremation or burial. If you would like to be buried in your local cemetery then you will need to have a plot reserved or your loved ones will have to organise this for you. Arranging a plot can involve paperwork with a trip to the local ‘mairie’. This is information that will be very useful for your loved ones to know. If they plan to take your ashes out of the country then there is a formal procedure for sealing the urn and getting official approval so they should allow time for this before traveling back.

This sounds daft but let whoever you think will be dealing with your affairs about where to find the folder.

Tip 4: Tell local friends or contacts about who to contact if something happens to you

Give local friends or contacts the details about who you would like them to contact should something happen to you. Do not forget that it may not be readily obvious to somebody who to get in touch with and there can be issues accessing mobile phones. I carry a little slip in my wallet that I keep with my driving license giving details of who to contact in the event of an emergency.

Tip 5: And relax!

Once you have assembled all that you can and annoyed your friends and relatives with the issue (!), you can then put it to bed, relax and enjoy your life in France!

I offer a range of services including helping people organise wills, putting their affairs in order and I also hold information for people so that if something happens to them, I know how to notify their nearest and dearest.

Published by Victoria Maître Headdon

I am a dual French-British national. I hold a degree in English and French law with French language awarded by the Universities of East Anglia and Lyons (Jean Moulin III). I have just completed an MA in Translation (final result awaited). After qualifying and working as a Barrister in London, I have worked in the French Real Estate industry since 2001. I am also a certified Property Valuer. I provide a wide range of Translation, Interpretation, Consulting and Lawyer-Linguist services, including in-person and video link interpreting. I am specialised in Real Estate, Private Law (contracts, divorce, wills, probate), Administrative Law (residency permits, nationality applications, health card registration) and I also have Corporate Law (companies and sole traders) expertise.

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