German Inheritance Law / German Law of Succession after 16.08.2015

1. When will German Law be applied by German Courts?

The international law of succession has changed fundamentally in Germany, since the "EU Regulation on jurisdiction, applicable law, recognition and enforcement of decisions and authentic instruments in matters of succession and the creation of a European Certificate of Succession" (EU Regulation on matters of succession) is appliccable on succession on the 17.08.2015 or afterwards. For the appliccable law on succession untill 16.08.2015 see here.

The new rgulation is directly applicable in Germany and all EU member states except Denmark, United Kingdom an Ireland. The basic rule is, that the law applicable to the succession is the law of the State of the deceased´s habitual residence at the time of death. If a person wants to plan his succession otherwise, he can choose the law of a State of which he is a national.

This rules apply not only in relation to member states to the EU Regulation, but also in relation to third party statetes as Denmark, UK, Ireland, USA, Canada an all other states in the world.

2. Basic Principles of German Inheritance Law
 If no will exists, the beneficiaries will be determined by the rules on intestate succession (gesetzliche Erbfolge). The rules apply for/to the spouse, blood relatives and for adopted children.
For so-called patchwork-families, the system of succession per degrees, lines and stirpes is rather complicated and can lead to severe fighting within the family. It is then highly recommended to draw a will.

The person inheriting, whether by the rules of intestate succession or under a will, will, in general, not depend on a deceased's personal representative. Instead, the person inheriting automatically „steps into the shoes“ of the deceased and is responsible for all assets and liabilities belonging to the estate. Restriction of liability (Beschränkung der Haftung auf den Nachlass) is possible, but complicated.

The heir's legal powers to dispose over his property may only be restricted by an executor or administrator (Testamentsvollstrecker) if the testator has explicitly ordered so in a will.
3. Wills (Testament)
According to German Law, any person above the age of 16 who is mentally fit may write his own personal and binding will. He or she is free to choose a beneficiary. No justification is required (principle of testamentary freedom, Testierfreiheit). The range of instruments is very wide; for limits see "minimum share" (Pflichtteil).
As time goes by, the testator's motivation to draw up the will may become unclear. Therefore, the interpretation of wills can become quite a science. We can provide you with our long experience in this sphere of law.
Contrary to many other legal systems, according to German Law of Successions, wills may be binding (Erbvertrag or Gemeinschaftliches Testament between spouses), so that the testator himself may not change the will anymore.   
4. Minimum Share or „Family Provision“ ("Pflichtteil")
The basic principle of testamentary freedom is restricted by the principle of inheritance by the family, which reserves a certain minimum share ("Pflichtteil") to the closest family members. If those family members have been excluded from inheriting by the testator, they are entitled to claim half of what they would have been entitled to if the deceased had died intestate. Contrary to Swiss of/or French Law, the German “Pflichtteilsrecht” is not structured as a substantive compulsory right, which means that the family members do not have the status of a beneficiary, they have no claim to specific objects and claims may become time-barred within three years.
The funds due to pay by the beneficiaries may be complicated to calculate (Sec. 2303 ff. BGB).
5. Probate Court Proceedings
In Germany, the “Nachlassgericht” (Probate Court) will, upon application, determine who the heirs are and issue an inheritance certificate. If the interpretation of a will is in dispute, the Court will further investigate the case and, at its discretion, call witnesses etc.
If an inheritance certificate is issued, it does neither establish the status of being an heir, nor does it enter legal force. If it transpires that a certificate of inheritance that has been issued is incorrect, the probate court must revoke the certificate (Sec. 2361 BGB) and a new certificate may be applied for. However, any person may rely on the correctness of the certificate and will be discharged from his debt if he or she makes performance to the holder of the certificate. The certificate may be limited to objects located in Germany.
Besides issuing Probates, the “Nachlassgericht” is competent for a range of other proceedings related to the estate.
6. Inheritance Tax / Estate Planning
Germany has quite a complicated Estate Tax system, which is currently being reviewed by the Federal Constitutional Court. A decision is expected for the second half of the year 2014.
Donations tax and Estate tax are regulated in essentially the same way. The closer the family link, the less taxes have to be paid. For example, there is a tax-free allowance of 500.000,00 ` between spouses plus residential property and an additional tax-free amount of max. 256.000,00 ` for retirement purposes. Children may inherit up to 400.000,00 ` without having to pay taxes. For a non-married couple, the tax-free amount will dwindles down to 20.000,00 `.
Generous exceptions may be made for business assets, which may be created legally during lifetime.

(Sebastian Höhmann, Attorney at Law 01.01.2016)

Legal Advice

The German attorney at law (Rechtsanwalt) Sebastian Höhmann will gladly advise you in your personal case. Legal advice is subject to legal fees.

But you can contact us free of charge and without obligation. And we will inform you in advance about the amount of any potential fees. (please visit Inheritance ABCs, Legal Fees).

Sebastian Höhmann, Rechtsanwalt Fachanwalt für Erbrecht (certified specialist on law of succession)
Berger Groß Höhmann & Partner Rechtsanwälte

Danziger Str. 56 / Ecke Kollwitzstraße

10435 Berlin / Prenzlauer Berg

phone: 49 30 440 330 - 28
(Secretary Ms. Christina Werchan)
fax:  49 30 440 330 - 22
E-Mail: hoehmann(at)

office hours:
monday - friday: 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Legal Advice

We will gladly advise you in your personal case:

international phone number: +49 30 440 330 47
(within Germany: 030 440 330 47)

Legal advice is subject to legal fees, but you can contact us free of charge and without obligation and we will inform you in advance about the expected amount of any potential fees.

Rechtsanwälte (attorneys at law):
Sebastian Höhmann, Fachanwalt für Erbrecht (certified specialist on law of succession)
Rechtsanwältin Elisabeta Schidowezki (certified specialist on law of succession)
Rechtsanwältin Nele Kliemt (certified specialist on law of succession)

Berger Groß Höhmann & Partner Rechtsanwälte
Danziger Str. 56 / Ecke Kollwitzstraße

10435 Berlin

phone:  +49 30 440 330 - 47
fax:       +49 30 440 330 - 22
E-Mail: hoehmann(at)

telephone hours:
monday - friday: 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. (CET)