Inheriting and bequeathing – what do I need to know?

Here you'll find key information with regard to inheritance law.

The answer in detail

All about inheritance and bequests

Who can inherit?

The assets of a deceased person normally transfer to one or more people. These people are called heirs.

In inheritance law, a distinction is made between legal and appointed heirs. Legal heirs are blood relatives (children of the deceased, parents, and grandparents), spouses, and registered partners. They receive an inheritance based on the law. By contrast, the following are not legally entitled to an inheritance: Fiancé(e)s, foster children, stepchildren, parents-in-law, brothers- or sisters-in-law, unregistered partners, friends, etc. However, they can be appointed heirs if the testator has defined them as such in a will or inheritance contract..

If there are several legal and/or appointed heirs, they form a community of joint heirs until the division of the estate. The community of joint heirs is automatically formed by law on the death of the testator.

What order of succession and inheritance shares apply?

The legal order of succession is applied in the event of the death of the testator if they have not made any provisions to the contrary or have not appointed any other people as heirs. The order of succession is determined by degree of relation. What matters is who is most closely related to the testator.

The closest heirs to the testator are first-degree relatives, in other words their offspring (children, and if these are deceased, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren). They inherit equally. If the testator has no children, then the estate goes to their second-degree relatives. This includes parents and, if they are deceased, their children, i.e. the testator’s siblings, nieces, and nephews. The father and mother each receive one-half of the inheritance. If the testator has no first- or second-degree relatives, then the estate is divided among the grandparents and their children as third-degree relatives. They also inherit equally. Other distant relatives have no legal right to an inheritance.

The surviving spouse or registered partner (on equal legal footing as a spouse when it comes to the inheritance) of the testator has a special place in the legal order of succession. They are entitled to the inheritance regardless of the surviving family constellation of the testator.

If the testator has no surviving relatives of the first, second, or third degree, nor a spouse or registered partner, then the entire estate becomes communal property. 

How can the order of succession be changed?

The testator can change the legal order of succession and customize it through a will or inheritance contract. A will and inheritance contract are instructions in the event of death, for which mandatory formal requirements must be fulfilled. While the holographic will can be drawn up by the testator themselves, an inheritance contract requires the involvement of the contractual parties. The main difference between the will and inheritance contract is that a will can be changed or revoked by the testator at any time. For an inheritance contract, changes or dissolution require the consent of all parties involved.

What can the heir do if they do not want to accept the inheritance?

The counterpart to acceptance is the renouncement of the inheritance. This can be done for personal or financial reasons, for example because the heir does not want to be held liable for the debts of the testator with their assets. By renouncing the inheritance, the heir loses their status as heir, which also excludes any liability for possible debts of the testator.
The deadline to turn down the inheritance is three months. For legal heirs, the term usually starts on the day on which the death of the testator became known.

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Important documents
Merkblatt Erben und vererben