Inheritance Law In Germany — What Women Need To Know

Inheritance law is particularly important for women. Women live longer than men, and the situation following the death of a spouse is often different if you’re a woman than if you’re a man. Here’s what you need to know.

How do women and men inherit in Germany?

If neither a will nor a contract of inheritance was drawn up, the surviving partner inherits a quarter of the estate according to the law of succession. In the case of married couples, the partner inherits half of the estate, and the other half goes to the deceased’s legitimate and illegitimate children. If the deceased has no children, the spouse inherits three quarters of the estate, with the rest distributed to parents and siblings of the deceased. An ex-partner does not inherit anything after a divorce, but remains entitled to inherit during the separation phase.

Important aspects of inheritance law for women in Germany

Inheritance law for women is particularly important because, statistically, women in Germany live longer than men and more often than not become primary heirs of their spouse. At the same time, approximately 70 percent of all wives survive their husbands and are are therefore more impacted by the issue of inheritance.

Spouse’s “advance”

Under the law of succession, in the event of the death of a husband, the wife is entitled to the household which she has created with her husband. However, this so-called “advance” only applies if there are children, who are entitled to inherit the husband’s personal belongings as they are included in the estate.

If there are no children, only the household’s luxury goods belong to the estate under inheritance law.

Spouse’s liabilities

In the event that a deceased husband leaves behind substantial debts in excess of the estate’s assets, under inheritance law women may refuse the inheritance. However, this must be done within a period of six weeks, otherwise inheritance is deemed to have been accepted by default. By accepting the inheritance, a wife is then also liable for the debts left behind by her husband.

Bank accounts

A bank account registered solely in the wife’s name remains in hers after the husband’s death. In addition, a wife may continue to use joint accounts under inheritance law if she continues to hold valid power of attorney with the bank.

The husband’s registered accounts, however, belong to the estate and can therefore only be accessed by the wife if she has a certificate of inheritance for it.

Matrimonial property regime

In Germany, a married couple usually lives under the matrimonial property regime of the joint venture. Both spouses retain their personal property: that which they brought into the marriage and that which they acquired during the marriage. However, joint ownership arises through separate agreements, such as a joint property where both spouses are entered in the land register. According to inheritance law, a share in the partner’s assets only arises for women through the equalisation of gains.

The equalisation of gains is normally paid in the form of a lump sum with one quarter of the husband’s assets. She then receives this quarter as a large compulsory portion in addition to her statutory right to inherit. In the event that no children are present, she receives three quarters of the estate. If children are present, she inherits half.

However, according to § 1371 BGB of inheritance law for women, a wife has an option to, in certain financial circumstances, refuse an inheritance and claim only a small compulsory portion. In addition, inheritance law can also demand women to receive a precisely calculated equalisation of gains.

“The Berlin Will” (Berliner Testament): advantages and disadvantages

A Berlin Will is considered a special form of the spouse’s will. It assigns spouses as sole heirs who can jointly decide on the final heirs. For this reason, any children will receive nothing upon the death of the first parent. (A compulsory portion penalty clause prevents them from claiming it.)

Normally, the Berlin Will has a high binding effect, so it can only be changed jointly.

A Berlin Will is rendered ineffective through divorce. In special cases, however, it can retain its validity.

In general, a Berlin Will has the advantage of mutual financial support for the spouses. However, for the final heirs, especially in the case of large assets, this can also bring tax disadvantages.