In Europe, succession planning can be a very different concept than what Americans are used to at home. In the U.S., we are almost entirely free to dispose of our estates as we please. This includes the ability to transfer everything to a friend, a trust, or to a charity upon death. In European countries apply a range of forced heirship rules, aimed at protecting specific heirs (usually children and blood relatives).
These restrictions create difficult estate planning situations for Americans in Europe. For example, a married U.S. couple living in France may want the surviving spouse to inherit the entire estate of a deceased husband or wife. They will find that convoluted heirship rules, derived from early 19th century Napoleonic reforms, require that their children receive a portion of the wealth.
These laws are not limited to France, and most countries in Europe will apply some form of forced heirship requirement. A relatively recent piece of EU regulation, directive 650/2012 (1), gives foreign nationals greater flexibility in disposing of their estate.
In a nutshell, EU Directive 650/2012 allows foreign citizens (say, an American living in Europe) to select the law of their country of citizenship in matters of succession, as opposed to local succession laws which would otherwise apply by default. For example, the previously mentioned American couple in France may have been able to transfer their wealth between spouses if they had made an election of U.S. law under 650/2012, and thereby opted for more flexible U.S. succession rules as opposed to more rigid French law.
As all things having to do with cross border estate planning, the application of this directive is a complex matter. In most cases it will require seeking advice from local experts.
The following bullet points will highlights a few key details to be aware of:
- The election is not a choice of probate location: many EU countries do not have a concept of probate comparable to the U.S. It is important to note that even if U.S. law is selected, whatever administrative proceeding might be applicable has to be followed locally.
- The election is tax neutral: regardless of your choice of succession law, local inheritance/estate or gift tax will still apply.
- Some countries opted out: The UK (pre-brexit), Ireland and Denmark have opted out of the directive (2).
- There may be alternatives: there may be solutions available under local law to circumvent forced heirship without resorting to 650/2012, these will usually involve either a specific election of matrimonial regime, or a marriage contract.
- Some practitioners may advise against it: Some estate planning practitioners still consider the directive to be relatively new and untested, and feel that it may add unnecessary complexity. Be sure to consult a local expert to understand all required formalities, procedures and consider alternatives.
You should always consult a financial, tax, or legal professional familiar about your unique circumstances before making any financial decisions. This material is intended for educational purposes only. Nothing in this material constitutes a solicitation for the sale or purchase of any securities. Any mentioned rates of return are historical or hypothetical in nature and are not a guarantee of future returns. Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Future returns may be lower or higher. Investments involve risk. Investment values will fluctuate with market conditions, and security positions, when sold, may be worth less or more than their original cost.