German Inheritance Tax

The article provides a short introduction to the Taxation of estates under the German Inheritance and Gift Tax Act without taking into consideration special rules under Double Taxation Agreements.

Applicable Tax Laws

The taxation of estates in Germany is codified in the Inheritance and Gift Tax Act (Erbschafts- und Schenkungsteuergesetz) - hereinafter ErbSt. Additionally, other German tax laws, such as the German General Fiscal Code (Abgabenordnung) - hereinafter AO - and the Valuation Act (Bewertungsgesetz)- hereinafter BewG apply. 

Please note: Germany has tax treaties with the USA (Germany-U.S. Estate and Gift Tax Treaty), Greece, France, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland, that may preclude Germany from imposing inheritance tax.  

General Concept of the German Inheritance Tax

Germany does not levy an estate tax (Nachlasssteuer) but an inheritance tax (Erbschaftsteuer). In contrast to an estate tax, an inheritance tax does not attach to the estate itself but instead is imposed on the acquisition (Erwerb) of the beneficiary. See § 1 ErbStG. Accordingly, the beneficiary must pay the German inheritance taxes on all transfers received. See § 20 ErbStG.

Germany has a unified inheritance and gift tax systems: Gratuitous transfers upon death or inter vivos , in particular a gift (Schenkung) between the same persons within 10 years are aggregated and the tax is (re-) calculated based on the aggregated taxable acquisition. See § 14 ErbStG. 

Example: A makes a lifetime gift to his sole child in 2010 and dies in 2019 leaving his estate to his child, the value of both transfers is aggregated in order to calculate the tax.

This can be used to minimize the applicable tax.

Example: If A had made the gift in 1999, he could have used the tax-free exemption twice and the (progressive) tax rate may be lower. 

Taxable Transfers of Property on Death

German inheritance tax is imposed on any transfer of property at death. For example, tax is imposed on the following transfers:

German and Foreign Pension Plans

Payments from German (or foreign) government pension schemes are excluded from taxation in Germany. Company based pension plans or tax-qualified annuities are generally subject to taxation under the German Inheritance Tax Act. However, the German Federal Fiscal Court (Bundesfinanzhof) held that certain payments from tax-qualified company pension plans or annuities are exempt from German inheritance tax. Payments from foreign pension plans are tax-exempt, if the foreign pension plan resembles a German tax-qualified pension plan or annuity. Nevertheless, it should be noted that German pension plans are somewhat unique, and foreign plans often do not resemble German plans. 

Community Property and other Issues of the Matrimonial Property Regime

In many jurisdictions the spouses acquire joint property during the marriage. In such cases, only the share of the first dying spouse is taxable under the German Inheritance Tax and Gift Tax Act.

Under the German laws governing matrimonial property (if applicable), there is no spousal community property unless the spouses agree to such an arrangement in a contractual agreement (antenuptial agreement, postnuptial agreement). However, in default of such an agreement, the surviving spouse will receive equalization of accrued gains (Zugewinnausgleich) when the marriage ends, e.g. because one spouse dies. The value of the equalization claim is tax exempt. See § 5 ErbStG  

Taxation of Residents

Pursuant to § 2(1) ErbStG (unlimited tax liability) Germany taxes all worldwide transfers, if either the deceased at the time of his death or the beneficiary - at the time of the acquisition -  is a German tax resident (Inländer) of Germany.

An individual is a German (deemed) tax resident if

A corporation (Kapitalgesellschaft), a partnership (Personengesellschaft), an association (Verein) and/or a foreign pool of assets (Vermögensmasse ausländischen Rechts) is a German tax resident, if its registered office (Sitz) or place of effective management (Ort der Geschäftsleitung) is situated in Germany. 

Please note: This does not necessarily mean that Germany imposes German inheritance tax as a Treaty may preclude Germany from imposing inheritance tax. Germany currently has Treaties in the area of inheritance and estate taxes with the USA (Germany-U.S. Estate and Gift Tax Treaty), Greece, France, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland. 

Non-Resident Taxation 

If neither the deceased nor the beneficiary is a German (deemed) tax resident, the beneficiary will generally only be subject to German Inheritance Tax based on the German domestic property (Inlandsvermögen); this is generally referred to as limited tax liability (beschränkte Steuerpflicht) or situs taxation.

Important: While most (private) financial investments (e.g. cash in account, exchange-traded funds, stocks, bonds) in Germany are not subject to taxation because of situs, most financial institutions will only release such assets after they have received a tax clearance certificate (steuerliche Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung), also referred to as German transfer certificate. 

Tax Exemptions and Reliefs of the German Inheritance Tax

The German Inheritance and Gift Tax Act provides for significant exemptions (sachliche Steuerbefreiungen) and reliefs:

Exemption for the Family Home

The family home (Familienheim) of the surviving spouse or registered same-sex partner (eingetragener Lebenspartner) is completely tax exempt, if

  • it is located in the European Union (EU) or European Economic Area (EAA); and
  • the surviving spouse personally uses it as principle home for another 10 years after death. See § 13(1) Nr. 4 b ErbStG. 

If there are pressing reasons why the surviving spouse cannot use the family home for his or her own purposes (e.g., in the event that the acquirer requires health care), this tax-free status remains unaffected.

Estate planning consideration: The tax exemption also applies if the family home is gifted to the spouse during the lifetime of the donor. In this case there is no requirement to live in it for 10 years after the donation. Therefore, it may be advisable to gift the family home during lifetime. 

If children and/or stepchildren (or children of deceased children or stepchildren) inherit the family home, it is tax exempt, if the beneficiary uses the family home as such for his or her own purposes for a period of 10 years after the death of the deceased. If the living space exceeds 200 square meters, the portion exceeding 200 square meters is liable to tax.

Exemptions and Reliefs for Agricultural, Forestry or Business Assets

Germany has enacted extensive tax exemptions and reliefs for agricultural, forestry or business assets, interests in a partnership or substantial shareholdings resident in Germany, in the EU or in the EEA.

Other Tax Exemptions and Tax Relief

Other tax exemptions and tax relief associated with the German Inheritance and Gift Tax Act include:

  • Household and personal effects are tax exempt up to EUR 41,000 if the beneficiary is taxable in tax class I (otherwise up to EUR 12,000);
  • Movables (e.g. personal jewelry) are tax exempt up to EUR 12,000;
  • Real estate (including parts of real estate) is tax exempt, if there is a public interest in preservation and it is open to the public;
  • Art collections, collections of scientific interest and other cultural assets can, under certain conditions, be exempted from 60%, 85% or even 100% of the German inheritance tax;
  • Acquisition by a church (Kirche) and a Jewish cultural community in Germany;
  • Acquisition by a corporation, association or pool of assets pursuing a ecclesiastical purposes (kirchlichen Zwecke)public-benefit purposes (gemeinnützige Zwecke) or a benevolant purposes (mildtätige Zwecke),
  • Aquisitions by a foreign corporation, association or pool of assets pursuing ecclesiastical purposes (kirchliche Zwecke), public-benefit purposes (mildtätigte Zwecke) or a benevolant purposes (mildtätige Zwecke), whose German source income would be tax privileged in Germany; if the tax-privileged purposes are only realized abroad, the tax exemption is only granted if individual residing in Germany are supported or the activities contribute to the reputation of the Federal Republic of Germany; and
  • Acquisition by German political parties. 

Deductible Estate Debts and Costs of Administration

The following obligations imposed on the taxpayer (beneficiary) are deductible: 

  • Debts of the decedent (e.g. nursing home/hospice costs, guardianship expenses);
  • The value of a legacy (Vermächtnis), testamentary burden (Auflage) or forced share (Pflichtteil) to be paid by the taxpayer;
  • The costs of the burial, an appropriate grave headstone, the usual grave maintenance with its capital value for an undetermined length of time; and
  • The costs arising for the recipient as a direct result of handling and distributing the estate.

Generally, such costs must be proven by filing support (e.g. invoices) together with the inheritance tax return. However, a standard deduction is provided in the amount of EUR 10,300 without any support.  

Maintenance costs (e.g. electricity) and the costs for selling estate assets (e.g. real estate agent`s commission) are generally not deductible. However, if the testator instructed the executor in his Will to sell all estate assets and distribute cash to the beneficiaries, all costs of selling the assets can be deducted.

In cross-border estate matters, it is also arguable that a beneficiary who lives abroad and therefore cannot use the inherited property unless it is liquidated, can deduct the costs of selling such assets. 


Valuation Date

The valuation is based on the date on which the tax arose. See § 11 ErbStG. The tax on an inheritance  arises with the death of the decedent (and not the time when the personal representative makes a distribution to the beneficiary). See § 10 ErbStG. Consequently, stock price losses after death are not to be considered. 

Valuation Methods

Pursuant to § 12 ErbStG the valuation is determined under the German law governing the valuation of assets (Bewertungsgesetz).

Securities, for example, are valued at the lowest price on a German stock exchange. See § 11 BewG.

The valuation of domestic real estate is based on the fair market value (§§ 162 I 1, 177 BewG). The taxpayer does not determine the value himself but must complete special tax forms allowing the fiscal authority at the place where the property is located to determine the fair market value in special tax proceedings. Depending on the type of the real estate, the local fiscal authority assesses the value of domestic real estate based on

  • a comparative market research (in particular for a one- or two-family home),
  • the value of the land/construction or
  • the net income (in particular for rental property) or
  • a combination thereof.

If the property was sold within 1 year prior to the taxable event (e.g. death), the purchase price is generally considered as the fair market value. An appraisal is generally not required. If the taxpayer considers the value assessed by the local fiscal authority to be above the fair market value, he may prove a lower value by way of an appraisal.

Foreign real estate is also valued at the fair market value. Unlike the valuation of domestic property, the value of foreign real estate is not determined in special tax proceedings. Instead, the taxpayer must  state the value and provide the inheritance tax office with information on the basis of the stated value.  

Personal Tax-free Exemptions

Certain persons can deduct a certain amount from their taxable acquisition, to which is referred hereinafter as tax-free exemption (Freibetrag) or inheritance tax threshold. There are three types personal tax-free exemptions:

Personal Tax-free Exemption

The personal tax-free exemption depends on the familial relationship between deceased and beneficiary. In case of unlimited tax liability - the following tax-free exemption applies (see § 15 ErbStG and § 16 ErbStG):

Relationship do decedent

Tax-free allowance

Spouse or a registered same sex partner (Lebenspartner)


Child (including adopted child or child born out of wedlock) and step-child


Child of a living child

€ 200,000

Child of a predeceased child

€ 400,000

Remoter offspring of child


Parent or remoter ascendant (e.g. grandparents)


Sibling (brother/sister)






Parent-in-law (parents by marriage)


divorced spouse


All other persons (including corporations, however, see special rules for trust)


Personal Tax-free Exemption in Case of Non-Resident Taxation

Prior to June 2017, the tax-free exemption under § 16(2) ErbStG was limited to EUR 2,000 in case of non-resident taxation. The European Court of Justice has since ruled in the cases Vera Mattner v. Finanzamt Velbert (Case C‑510/08) and Yvon Welte v. Finanzamt Velbert (Case C‑181/12)  that this reduced tax-free allowance violates European Law and that the full exemption amount under § 16(1) ErbStG must be granted. In response to aforementioned rulings, § 16(2) ErbStG was reformed. The newly enacted law became applicable on June 25, 2017 and holds that the personal tax-free allowance under § 16(1) ErbStG shall also be granted in cases of situs taxation, but be subject to a reduction which is calculated as follows: 

All estate assets and gifts within a 10-year period not subject to German situs taxation

Divided by: All estate assets and gifts in a 10-year period. 

Example: The decedent’s fiscal domicile at the time of death was Los Angeles, CA USA. At the time of her death, the decedent owned an apartment in Munich with a value of EUR 400,000. The value of her worldwide estate is determined to be € 1 million. The decedent gives everything to her son. Germany taxes only the value of the apartment. However, the tax-free amount of € 400,000 under § 16(1) ErbStG is not granted in full. Instead, it is reduced by EUR 240,000 under § 16(2) ErbStG: Tax-free exemption minus EUR 600,000 (estate assets not subject to German situs taxation) ./. € 1 million (all transfers in a 10-year period) × €400,000 (tax free allowance) = €240,000. Thus, the tax-free exemption under § 16(2) ErbStG is limited to €160.000. 

Special Spousal Tax-free Exemption

An additional tax-free exemption of up to € 256,000 is granted under § 17 ErbStG (Vorsorgefreibetrag) to the surviving spouse. However, the capitalized value of an inheritance tax-free widowers pension will be deduced from the available exemption amount. 

Special Tax-free Exemption for Children of the Deceased

An additional tax-free exemption of up to € 52,000 is granted to children of the deceased up to the age of 27 provided that such children are not entitled to tax-free pension payments upon the death of their parent (§ 17 ErbStG). If they are entitled to such benefits, the exemption will be reduced by the net present value of such pension benefits.

Tax-free Exemption for the Equalization of surplus Claim

The value of the claim for equalization of accrued gains (Zugewinnausgleich) is tax exempt. See § 5 ErbStG.  

"Per Transfer"

The tax-free exemption under § 16 ErbStG and § 17 ErbStG is granted for any “transfer” from the same person. Thus, it is favorable to make dispositions to more than one person. 

Example: A has a net worth of € 1,3 Mio. If he leaves everything to his wife, his wife must pay German inheritance tax on an amount of € 800,000 a rate of 19 %. However, if he would give to each of his 2 children EUR 400,000 and the remainder, € 500,000 to his wife, no beneficiary would pay any German inheritance tax. 

Inheritance Tax Classes and Rates

The German inheritance tax rates depend on the tax class and the value of the taxable acquisition of the beneficiary.  

Inheritance Tax Classes

The tax class depends on the familial relationship between the deceased and the beneficiary:

Relationship do donor

Tax Class

Spouse or a Registered same-sex partner (eingetragener Lebenspartner)


Child (including stepchild, adopted child or child born out of wedlock)


Child of a living child


Child of a predeceased child


Remoter offspring of child


Parent or remoter ascendant


Sibling (brother/sister)






Parent-in-law (parents by marriage)


divorced spouse


All other persons 


Inheritance Tax Rates

The German inheritance tax rates (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021) in each tax class can be taken from the following table:

Value of the taxable acquisition (§ 10 ErbStG)

Tax Class I

Tax Class II

Tax Class III

Up €75,000
























More than €26,000,000



50 %

If the taxable acquisition exceeds the respective value limit, the higher tax rate is to be applied to the total taxable acquisition. 

Example: A, nephew of the deceased, inherits € 500,000. The first € 20,000 is tax free. The excess is taxed at a rate of 25 % (and not only the amount of the taxable acquisition which exceeds €300,000). 

In order to avoid unfair taxation in cases where the value limit is exceeded, a “compensation for hardship” under § 19 (3) ErbStG may be available. 

Deduction of Foreign Estate Taxes and Inheritance Taxes

Upon application a foreign tax will be offset against the German inheritance tax if:

  • either the deceased or the beneficiary was a resident of Germany in the meaning of § 2 ErbStG,
  • estate assets are located outside of Germany, which are taxable in Germany and abroad,
  • the foreign tax is comparable to the German inheritance tax,
  • the foreign tax was assessed and paid,
  • The foreign tax accrued within the last 5 years prior to the German tax. See § 21 ErbStG. 

Estate taxes (e.g. UK inheritance tax or South African estate duty) are generally comparable to the German inheritance taxes and, thus, qualify for unilateral relief (Anrechnung) in Germany.

The Canadian capital gains tax on deemed disposition on death and similar taxes (e.g. Thai Capital Gains tax) are not comparable to the German inheritance tax and therefore cannot be offset against the German inheritance tax. However, such taxes can be deducted as estate debt or as expenses of administration of the estate.

If unlimited tax liability (unbeschränkte Steuerpflicht) in Germany is derivative of the fact that the deceased had a residence in Germany, the foreign tax on personal property (e.g. a yacht, classic cars, artwork) and nontangible property (e.g. balance of foreign bank account, shares in corporation) cannot be offset against the German Inheritance Tax. The  European Court of Justice has ruled, that this rule does not violate European law.

Personal Tax Liability under the German Inheritance and Gift Tax Act

The beneficiary must pay the German inheritance tax. See § 20 ErbStG. However, the executor (Testamentsvollstrecker) is obliged to make sure that the inheritance tax is paid.  Failure to comply with this obligation may result in personal liability for the executor. The executor has the right to withhold the funds necessary to pay the German inheritance tax and pay the tax directly out of the estate without the consent of the beneficiaries.

German Inheritance Tax Return and Duty of Disclosure

There is no obligation to file a German inheritance tax return (Erbschaftsteuererklärung) unless an inheritance tax office demands it. However, according to § 30 ErbStG, the beneficiaries are obliged to report the transfer to the local inheritance tax office within 3 months after gaining knowledge of the taxable transfer of property at death in the meaning of § 1 ErbStG.

Please note: The 3-month period even applies if the estate is administered by a (foreign) personal representative and such person hasn´t made a distribution yet. 

If the beneficiary fails to comply with this duty of disclosure and, as a consequence, German inheritance taxes are not or not sufficiently paid, they may be prosecuted for tax fraud.

German banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions inform the German tax authorities of any estate assets held by them upon receipt of notice of the death of their client. German notaries, consuls and probate courts inform the German tax authorities of all documents that may impact the taxation of the Estate.

On the basis of the information received from the beneficiaries, the financial institutions and other sources (e.g. German notaries, German probate courts or German Consuls), the German tax authorities determine if German inheritance tax may be due and - if this is the case - ask to file an inheritance tax return from any person involved in the transfer. The filing period time is generally one month. Upon application, an extension of the filing period is granted in most cases. 

Generally, the inheritance tax return must be filed by the beneficiaries (e.g. heir or legatee) for their respective share of the estate or other transfer on death. However, if there is an executor (Testamentsvollstrecker), the executor must file the inheritance tax return. Foreign executors are liable to file German inheritance tax returns if they qualify for a German certificate of executorship and have accepted the office, e.g. by filing an application for a German certificate of executorship (Testamentsvollstreckerzeugnis)

Based on the inheritance tax return and other information, the inheritance tax office calculates the inheritance tax and issues a tax assessment document, which shows the amount payable and how it has been determined. 

The tax becomes is payable after the payment period stated in the tax assessment document (Erbschaftsteuerbescheid) expires, which is generally one month.  

Please note: As the tax is triggered by the death of the decedent, the tax may due on the value of the total acquisition  even though the personal representative hasn`t distributed the estate yet. If the taxpayer is unable to pay the amount, the German tax authorities may, upon application, extend the payment period, however, late payment interest of up to 6 % per year may be payable. 

Tax Clearance / Transfer Certificate

If all or one of the beneficiaries reside outside of Germany, German banks and other financial institutions are liable for the payment of inheritance tax by such beneficiaries. Thus, they make no payments to beneficiaries residing outside of Germany, unless a transfer certificate (Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung), also referred to as tax clearance certificate (Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung), is provided. Such tax clearance certificate will be issued by the tax authority once it has determined that no tax is due or the assessed tax has been fully paid. 

Estate Income Tax Return

Generally, there is no German Estate Income Tax Return, as - under German law - an estate is not a separate legal entity for tax purposes. However, if there is a community of co-heirs (Erbengemeinschaft), income from assets administered by the community-of-co-heirs must be assessed each year (Erklärung zur gesonderten und einheitlichen Feststellung der Grundlagen für die Einkommensbesteuerung, or abbreviated: Feststellungserklärungen). If a foreign estate qualifies as foreign family pool of assets (Vermögensmasse ausländischen Rechts) the beneficiary may have to file a special tax return for the income of such foreign family pool of assets.

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