How and when does one become an heir?

Last update: 10/3/2012

In French law, a succession opens with the deceased’s death. The heir is thus vested with the inheritance (transfer of estate) from this time. The heir must make a choice within ten years after the opening of the succession.

If the succession is accepted purely and simply, this acceptance may be express or tacit. The heir is then liable for the deceased’s debts, which may even be enforced against the heir’s own assets.

If the heir accepts the succession and the amount of the net assets, he/she must file a declaration with the court of first instance of the district where the succession is opened. He/she thus limits his/her liability for debts to the extent of the net assets.
In the event of renunciation, the heir is deemed never to have existed.

Detailed information

When and how does one become an heir?
Under French law, the heirs acquire the deceased’s assets and obligations at the time of the latter’s death (article 724 indent 1 of the Civil Code).
Some heirs (forced heirs and all legal heirs) have seisin (article 724 indent 2 of the Civil Code), others must obtain a vesting order (article 724 indent 3), in particular the State.
There are heirs who do not have seisin such as specific legatees, residuary legatees and general legatees (except in the absence of forced heirs). To find out about their legacy, they must contact the heirs who have seisin. They take deliverace of their legacy through an intermediary.
This right of option must be exercised within 10 years after the opening of the succession (article 780 of the Civil Code).

Unconditional acceptance of the succession
The unconditional acceptance of a succession may be either express or tacit (article 782 of the Civil Code). An act which supposes the intention to accept and which cannot be accomplished by a person other than the heir is deemed to be an act implying acceptance (article 783 of the Civil Code). The disposal of a specific asset implies acceptance (transfer of real estate– personal property) when the property in question is part of the estate. Administrative acts (except for provisional administrative acts and conservation measures) accomplished by an heir may also imply unconditional acceptance of the succession.

Acceptance up to the amount of the net assets
An heir may declare that he/she intends to accept the succession up to the amount of the net assets (article 787 of the Civil Code). The heir will be liable for the liabilities but only up to the value of the assets which devolve upon him/her in the succession. A declaration must be drawn up and filed with the clerk of the Court of First Instance in the judicial district where the succession has been opened (article 788 of the Civil Code). The declaration must be accompanied or followed by an inventory of the assets comprising the succession. The inventory must be drawn up by a civil law notary, an auctioneer or a bailiff (article 789 of the Civil Code).
The inventory must be filed with the court within two months after the date of the declaration. If no inventory is drawn up, the succession will be deemed to have been unconditionally accepted (article 790 of the Civil Code). This inventory must include all assets and liabilities included in the succession.
An heir may not opt to accept a succession up to the amount of the net assets if he/she has previously unconditionally accepted the succession.

Is it possible to renounce a succession?

An heir can renounce a succession at any time by filing a declaration to that effect with the Court of First Instance of the judicial district where the succession has been opened. Any such renunciation must be made expressly (article 804 of the Civil Code).
An heir who renounces a succession is deemed never to have been an heir. The revocation is retroactive (article 805 of the Civil Code).

Any person entitled to inherit may withdraw his/her renunciation as long as the succession has not been accepted by another party (article 807 of the Civil Code).

Are the heirs and co-heirs liable for the deceased’s debts?

General and residuary and legatees have unlimited liability for the succession’s debts and liabilities. Heirs are only liable for legacies of sums of money up to the amount of the net assets (article 785 of the Civil Code).
If there are several heirs, each heir is personally liable for the succession’s debts and liabilities for his/her share of the estate (article 873 of the Civil Code).
If the heir has unconditionally accepted his/her inheritance, he/she has unlimited liability for the deceased’s debts and liabilities. However, he/she may be released from all or part of this liability for the succession’s debts if, at the time of the succession, he/she could have been unaware of the existence of these liabilities and if the payments of the debts could have a serious effect on his/her personal assets. – If an heir has accepted his/her inheritance up to the amount of net assets, he/she is only liable for the succession’s debts up to the value of the assets he/she has received. – If the heir has renounced the succession, he/she has no liability for the debts.