German Certificate of Inheritance

German Certificate of Inheritance

German banks, land registries, commercial Registers (Handelsregister) and other institutions generally do not recognize a foreign grant of probate or foreign letters of administration. Instead, German institutions typically require a German Certificate of Inheritance (Erbschein), a German certificate of executorship or both. The article explains the legal effect of a German certificate of inheritance and outlines the process for obtaining a certificate of inheritance.

Content and Legal Effect of the German Certificate of Inheritance

The content and legal effect of a German Certificate of Inheritance is described in §§ 2353 through 2370 of the German Civil Code (BGB) and §§ 352 through 355 of the Act on Proceedings in Family Matters and in Matters of Non-contentious Jurisdiction (FamFG).

Content

A German Certificate of Inheritance (Erbschein) shows the name of the heir (Erbe) and, if there is more than one heir, the respective shares of the co-heir (Miterbe) in the estate. See § 2353 BGB. The German Certificate of Inheritance also confirms any limitations on the heir's power of disposition over the estate. For example such limitations can include:

Please note: The German Certificate of Inheritance does not confirm whether there is a legatee (Vermächtnisnehmer) or a forced heir (Pflichtteilsberechtigter) as such person(s) may claim fulfillment from the heir/s. A Certificate of Inheritance also does not state the identity of a German executor as this is stated in a German certificate of executorship (Testamentsvollstreckerzeugnis)

Legal Effect

Pursuant to § 2365 BGB, there is a presumption that the person or persons identified as heirs in the Certificate of Inheritance have the right of inheritance as stated therein, which is not subject to limitations other than those stated. The presumption is rebuttable. 

Additionally, § 2366 BGB protects those who acquire an item belonging to the Estate from the person named as an heir in the Certificate. Such buyers obtain title even if the transferor is later found to have not been a true heir. Of course, this protection is limited to good faith buyers with no prior knowledge of the inaccuracies contained in the Certificate.

Procedure to obtain a German Certificate of Inheritance

The procedure for obtaining a German Certificate of Inheritance is described in the German Act on the Procedure in Family Matters and in Matters of Non-contentious Jurisdiction (FamFG).

Application and Affirmation in Lieu of an Oath 

While the German probate court (Nachlassgericht) will issue the certificate of inheritance, the application can also be made through:

It may be presented by any

  • heir (Erbe) or co-heir,
  • German executor (Testamentsvollstrecker) and/or
  • creditor.

Please note: A foreign administrator has no right to submit an application and not all foreign executors qualify as German executor. 

In case of intestacy (gesetzliche Erbfolge), the applicant must state:

  1. the date of death of the deceased,
  2. the last habitual residence and citizenship of the deceased,
  3. the relationship on which his right of succession is based,
  4. whether and which persons exist or existed by whom he would be excluded from succession or his share of the inheritance would be reduced,
  5. whether and what dispositions mortis causa (Verfügungen von Todes wegen) of the deceased exist,
  6. whether any legal dispute concerning his right of succession is pending in a (German or foreign) court,
  7. if he has accepted the inheritance and
  8. his share in the estate. See 352(1) sentence 1 FamFG,

If the application is based on a will, the applicant must 

  1. specify the disposition upon which his right of succession is based, and
  2. state whether and what other dispositions mortis causa of the testator exist, and
  3. provide the information specified in § 352 (1) sentence 1, number 1, 2 and 6 to 8 and sentence 2 FamFG. See See § 352(2) FamFG

Furthermore, the applicant should state the law of the country that governs succession as determined under the European Succession Regulation

Please note: In simple matters, the German notary or German Consulate drafts the application. However, in more complex matters, a German lawyer specializing in international probate law should prepare the document. 

The application does not have to be made in person and can also be signed by an attorney-in-fact (e.g. German lawyer) or other representative, e.g. a (German) guardian (Vormund) or custodian (Betreuer).

However, the applicant must personally affirm in lieu of an oath certain facts such as that he is unaware of any rights of other parties that may be in conflict with the alleged entitlement to the inheritance. This affirmation in lieu of an oath (eidesstattliche Versicherung) must be notarized in front of a German Consul, a German court or a German notary (Notar). Accordingly, the application document is generally notarized.

Please note: Only in exceptional cases (e.g. because the heir is mentally incompetent), the court will, upon application, dispense with the affirmation requirement.

If the applicant does not have sufficient command of German, the the German Notary (Notar) or German Consul will verbally translate the full contents of the application document to English or, if the Notary or the Consul is not willing to do so, a sworn translator must be present when the Notary or Consul reads out loud the application document and translate it into English. 

The German notary or German Consul will charge a statutory scale fee for his services. As the scale fee of a German Consul may be much higher than the fees of a German notary and many German Consulates are backlogged, the applicant should consider to travel to Germany for signing the application. 

Supporting Documents

The applicant must file supporting documents with his application. See 353(3) FamFG, Supporting documents generally include:

  • Original copy of the death certificate (Sterbeurkunde);
  • if not in court costody with a German probate court or already filed: Original Will (Testament) or contract of inheritance (Erbvertrag); 
  • If the original Will was filed with a foreign probat court: Court certified copy of the Will and a foreign court document stating that the Will is in foreign court custody (e.g. grant of probate).

In case of intestate succession (gesetzliche Erbfolge), certificates proving the family relationship should be filed. Such documents typically include:

  • marriage certificate (Eheurkunde),
  • birth certificate (Geburtsurkunde) or
  • divorce judgement (Ehescheidungsurteil).

Should an applicant not want to file original documents, the applicant should request that the German notary or German Consul makes certified copies which can be attached to the application.  

As German courts may require proof of authenticity of any document issued by a foreign country, the petitioner should consider to obtain a Hague apostille (Haager Apostille) or legalization (Legalisation)

Additionally, as many German probate judges are not fluent in English (or any other language used in the supporting documents), the applicant should consider obtaining translations. 

Objectively limited Certificate of Inheritance

If the estate comprises assets situated outside of Germany, the applicant may apply for a objectively limited certificate of inheritance. See § 352c FamFG. Such certificate of inheritance will be only effective with regard to the assets situated in Germany. The (only) benefit of such objectively limited Certificate of inheritance is that the fees are only calculated on the basis of the (gross) estate in Germany.

Please note: By applying for such an objectively limited certificate of inheritance, it cannot be avoided to file the Will for another jurisdiction with the German probate court or avoid certain issues which arise from the "principle of universal succession". 

Filing with the German Probate Court

If the affirmation/application is signed in front of a German Consul, the German Consul does not file the application document with the Court. Instead, he/she simply provides the original (and a first certified copy) to the applicant, who must file the document with the Court. Generally in cross border estate matters, applicants retain a German lawyer as such representation makes communication with the Court far more efficient and accelerates the process.

Jurisdiction of German Courts

In general, German courts have jurisdiction if the deceased had his habitual residence at the time of death in Germany. See Art. 4 of the European Succession Regulation.

Where the habitual residence of the deceased at the time of death is not in Germany and no other member State of the European Succession Regulation, German courts have jurisdiction to rule on the succession as a whole in so far as:

  • the deceased was a German citizen at the time of death; or, failing that,
  • the deceased had his previous habitual residence in Germany at the time the court is seised, a period of not more than five years has elapsed since that habitual residence changed. See Art. 10 para 1 of the European Succession Regulation. 

Where no court in a Member State has jurisdiction pursuant to Art. 10 para 1 of the European Succession Regulation, German courts have jurisdiction with regard to such assets that are located in Germany. See Art. 10 para 1 of the European Succession Regulation. 

If the testator validly elected German law, the beneficiaries may enter into an agreement that German courts have jurisdiction. 

Venue

The proper venue is the probate court (Nachlassgericht) at the place of the last habitual residence (gewöhnlicher Aufenthalt) of the deceased. See § 343(1) FamFG

If the deceased had no habitual residence in Germany when he died, the probate court at the place of his last habitual residence is the proper venue. See § 343(2) FamFG

If the deceased never had a habitual residence in Germany, the probate court in Schöneberg/Berlin is the proper venue. See § 343(3) FamFG

Notice to Interested Persons

After receiving the application and supporting documents, the Probate Court will send a copy of the application and all supporting documents to all interested persons (Betroffene), e.g. intestate heirs, devisees or an executor, and advise them of their right to apply for participation in the further proceedings. If the opening of the Will (Testamentseröffnung) did not occur before, the Probate Court will also send a certified copy of the Will and the opening protocol to all interested persons together with the application. This will give all interested parties the opportunity to raise objections.

Court Order to Determine Heirship and Issuance of the Certificate of Inheritance

The certificate of inheritance will be issued if the probate court considers that the facts necessary to support the application have been established.  See § 352e (1) FamFG. The decision shall be made by court order. See § 352e (1) FamFG.

If the decision contradicts the declared intention of a party, the decision shall be made known to the parties. See § 352e (2) FamFG. In this case, the court shall suspend the immediate effectiveness of the court order and postpone the issue of the certificate of inheritance until the court order becomes final. See § 352e (2) FamFG.

After the application has been filed, the probate court will also ask the applicant to fill out a form listing all estate assets. This estate inventory (Nachlassverzeichnis) is the basis for the calculation of the court fees, which depend on the (net) value of the estate.

Please note: Some courts will not issue the certificate before the court fees are assessed and paid.

Refusal to Issue of a German Certificate of Inheritance

If the probate court is not convinced that the applicant has the right to receive the requested certificate, it will issue a court order stating the grounds for refusal and give notice to the parties of the proceedings. See § 352e(1) FamFG. The petitioner may appeal such an order. 

Revocation of the Certificate of Inheritance

The German certificate of inheritance should not be considered a final court order. If at any time it turns out that is the certificate is incorrect, the court may revoke the certificate and claim back the document. See § 353 FamFG

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