Wills, Testaments in Germany

Testamentary dispositions under German inheritance law

A will can be used to determine inheritance in Germany in individual cases and to make further arrangements for the testamentary succession. The German inheritance law recognises different forms of wills. During inheritance proceedings, there are often disputes about the validity, contestability and proper interpretation of wills.

Our English-speaking lawyers and certified specialists for inheritance law

  • draft legally secure and effective testamentary dispositions
  • apply for certificates of inheritance on the basis of wills
  • represent you in disputes about the validity or meaning of wills

For a non-binding client inquiry, please get in touch with one of our contact persons directly by phone or e-mail or use the contact form at the bottom of this page.

Overview of wills in Germany

In the following we discuss an overview of the most important issues concerning wills under German law:

  1. Formal requirements for wills
  2. Revocation of wills
  3. Contents of wills
  4. Freedom to make a will and compulsory share in Germany
  5. Probate of wills and inheritance certificate proceedings
  6. Contestation of wills

Formal requirements and testamentary capacity

In Germany, anyone who is at least 16 years old and mentally capable may make a will. A will is effective in form if it either.

  • completely written down by hand and signed
  • or has been notarised before a notary public.

A special feature of German inheritance law is the joint spouse's will. Married couples can make a joint will. In this case, a so-called ‘binding effect’ arises insofar as dispositions are based on reciprocity. This gives both partners and, if applicable, joint children a certain degree of security with regard to succession.

Another option for a testamentary disposition is an inheritance contract with strict binding force. Inheritance contracts always require notarial certification.

Revocation of wills

Under German law, wills can, in principle, be freely amended or revoked at any time. Wills can also be revoked by implication when a person makes a new will.

There are limits on revocation for joint wills. These can only be revoked during the lifetime of both spouses under strict conditions and in general, they cannot be revoked at all after the death of one spouse. Inheritance contracts also cannot normally be revoked unilaterally.

Contents of wills

German wills can contain a variety of inheritance provisions. Among the most important are:

  • Appointment of heirs and determination of inheritance quotas
  • Bequests of certain assets in favour of individuals
  • Conditions with which heirs must comply
  • Guardianship provision for minor heirs
  • Executions of wills

You should discuss which provisions are permissible and appropriate in a specific case with an experienced certified specialist for inheritance law.

Freedom to make a will and compulsory share in Germany

German inheritance law provides for extensive testamentary freedom. In particular, heirs can be freely determined, and legal heirs disinherited. If spouses or children are disinherited, however, they are entitled to a so-called compulsory share.

The compulsory share amounts to half of the legal share of the inheritance. If it is claimed by a disinherited relative, the remaining heir or heirs must make a monetary payment in the corresponding amount.

Probate of wills and inheritance certificate proceedings

If an inheritance occurs, any wills must be opened by the probate court. To ensure this, there is an obligation to deliver wills to interested parties. The probate court then opens the existing testamentary dispositions.

In many cases, heirs need proof of their status as heirs. Possible forms of proof include:

  1. Presentation of an opened handwritten will (to be presented to banks for accounts, deposits, or safe deposit boxes)
  2. Presentation of an opened notarial will (to be presented to land or commercial registries)
  3. Presentation of a certificate of inheritance or a European Certificate of Succession

If the will is not sufficient as legitimation, a certificate of inheritance or, if necessary, a European Certificate of Succession must be obtained. The certificate of inheritance or the European Certificate of Succession is issued by the probate court. It shows the heirs and the amount of their inheritance shares.

Contestation of wills

It is not uncommon for there to be a dispute over the inheritance after a death occurs. With regard to the will, the following questions often arise:

  1. How are the individual provisions of the will to be understood (interpretation)?
  2. Is the will invalid, for example due to formal errors or lack of testamentary capacity?
  3. Is the will voidable, on the grounds of mistake or deceit on the part of the testator?

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