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Inheritance matters and certificate of inheritance ('Erbschein')

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General information on the German inheritance process

Are you an heir to the estate of someone who has died, and the estate is (partly) in Germany? To be able to access an estate in Germany, you often need to submit a certificate of inheritance (“Erbschein”) or a European Certificate of Succession (ECS) issued by a German probate court.

This is particularly the case when the deceased has left real estate in Germany. In this case the land register needs to be updated. Banks, insurance companies and similar organisations also commonly ask for proof of inheritance in the form of a certificate of inheritance or an ECS. A certified copy of the will filed with the probate court together with a record of probate proceedings suffices in place of a certificate of inheritance/ECS in the case of a notarial will or a deed of succession in which the heirs are precisely designated.

A will drawn up in the United Kingdom in the presence of one (as applicable in Scotland) or two (applicable in England and Wales as well as Northern Ireland) witnesses is not recognised in Germany, and neither is a grant of probate or letters of administration issued by a British court.

Under German law, the estate of a deceased person (“Erblasser”) passes directly to the heir or heirs (known as universal succession). Unlike in the United Kingdom, there is not a personal representative who takes care of the administration of the estate in the first instance.

A separate declaration stating that the inheritance has been accepted is not required. In some cases, though, for example if the estate is overindebted, it may be advisable to renounce the inheritance. To do this, the heir must declare to the probate court within a specified period that he/she renounces the inheritance. The heir is automatically deemed to have accepted the inheritance unless he/she has formally renounced it within the specified period.

The certificate of inheritance is issued, upon application, by the competent probate court in Germany. The competent court is usually the local court for the district in which the deceased was last resident.

The application generally includes a declaration in lieu of an oath, which needs to be notarised by the competent probate court or a notary in Germany.

Outside of Germany, a declaration in lieu of an oath can only be notarised by an authorised consular officer at a German embassy or consulate general. The applicant has to visit the embassy or consulate general in person for this. In the United Kingdom the notarisation can currently only be carried out at the Embassy in London.

(For details of the process, see Section 2)

If the applicant is not able to attend in person, for example for health reasons, the probate court can under certain circumstances, upon application, waive the requirement for a declaration in lieu of an oath. Please contact the competent probate court directly about this.

The certificate of inheritance shows the legal succession and proportional rights to the inheritance, but not who is entitled to the individual items forming part of the estate. Where there are several heirs, they initially form a community of heirs and have to decide on the distribution of the estate themselves, possibly with the help of a notary, if the estate includes real estate.

If there are several heirs, it is normally sufficient for one of the heirs to apply for a joint certificate of inheritance. The probate court will usually, upon application, waive the requirement for all the other heirs to also file a declaration in lieu of an oath. It is possible for a certificate of inheritance covering solely one’s own share of the estate to be issued (“fractional certificate of inheritance”), however this alone is not sufficient in most cases as the heirs can only dispose of the estate jointly. 

As a rule, the German mission abroad only needs to be involved in inheritance cases if the estate is located in Germany, regardless of the nationality of the deceased. For estates in the United Kingdom, please contact the relevant British government department.

The German missions abroad cannot provide any information in individual inheritance cases or on inheritance tax matters. We recommend that you contact a specialist lawyer or tax consultant or the tax office on such matters.

A list of lawyers in Germany specialising in German inheritance law can be found here, for example.

A list of English-speaking lawyers and notaries in Germany can be found on the British government website here.

Procedure at the Embassy

If you need to have an application notarised at the German Embassy in London, please fill in the questionnaire below and send it to the Embassy.

Questionnaire

You can fill in the questionnaire either on the computer or by hand (in block letters).

The information you provide in this questionnaire forms the basis for the preparation of your application for a certificate of inheritance or ECS. Therefore please complete the questionnaire as fully as possible. Incomplete information may cause delays in processing. Please note that the Embassy is not able to make enquiries on your behalf. If you do not have all the necessary information, you should if need be consult a lawyer or legal advisor.

Please enclose simple copies of the supporting documentation for your application with your completed, signed questionnaire. You can find a list of the documents required in the notes accompanying the questionnaire. Please do not send any original documents.

Please then send your questionnaire and supporting documentation by post to the following address: 

Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany
Inheritance Department
23 Belgrave Square
London
SW1X 8PZ

The Embassy will draft an application for a certificate of inheritance based on the information provided in your questionnaire and will then contact you to arrange an appointment for the notarisation.

Please note that, due to the large number of applications we receive, it may take us around six months to process your application. Applications are processed in chronological order. We apologise for any inconvenience caused by this delay. The Embassy will contact you as soon as possible to arrange an appointment for notarisation. In the meantime we kindly ask you to refrain from enquiring about the progress of your application.

A fee is payable for the notarisation, which can be paid in cash or by credit card (Visa and Mastercard are accepted, but no debit cards). If paid by credit card, the fee will be debited in euros. You may incur a foreign transaction charge if using a UK credit card. Please ask what the notarisation fee will be when making your appointment. The fee is based on the value of the estate.

After notarisation, you will need to send the application to the competent German probate court together with certified true copies of the required personal documents. Please bear in mind that German courts usually ask for translations of foreign-language certificates and wills, even though translations of English documents are not required for notarisation at the Embassy. A court fee will be charged for the issuance of the certificate of inheritance, ECS or certificate of executorship.

Please note that the Embassy can only draft and notarise the application for you. You or your representative will need to submit it to the German probate court and you will also need to handle any follow-up correspondence. The Embassy cannot provide individual legal advice or act on your behalf in the probate proceedings. You would need to contact a member of the legal profession for assistance in this regard (see Section 1).

EU Succession Regulation: Information on the new succession legislation

Deaths occurring on or after 17 August 2015 come under the EU Succession Regulation, which can have a significant bearing in such cases. It stipulates which country’s law of succession shall apply when a person dies. Until that date, under German legislation, this was determined by the nationality of the deceased. However, since 17 August 2015 it is the law of the country in which the deceased had permanent residence that applies, provided the deceased did not specify otherwise in his or her will.

The EU Succession Regulation also makes it possible to apply for a European Certificate of Succession (ECS) that can be used in several member states as evidence of legal succession. In Germany it is the probate court that is responsible for issuing the European Certificate of Succession. It can be issued if proof of inheritance is needed in Germany and at least one other European Union member state (excluding Denmark and Ireland). The procedure for applying for a certificate of inheritance (see above) also applies in this case.

Further information can be found in the German-language section of the website here.

Tracing heirs

The German missions abroad are unable to assist with tracing heirs. This is normally done by an administrator of the estate or by a tracing agency appointed by him or her, and any costs incurred are paid for out of the estate. Assisting with the tracing of heirs is not part of the legal mandate of a diplomatic mission.

Information on tracing heirs and addresses can be found here.

If the heirs are unknown and the death occurred in the United Kingdom, it can sometimes be helpful to request a British death certificate. This generally includes the name and address of the “informant”, which may open up new avenues of enquiry. You can request a certificate even if you are in Germany.

FAQ

Frequently asked questions can be found here.

Information pursuant to Article 13 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

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