U.S./French Estate Planning: A General Outline

February 7, 2014

What is an estate plan?
An estate plan is a blueprint of how your assets will be transferred to your heirs, during life or at death. In most cases, estate planning refers planning for what happens at the end.

Elements of an estate plan

Typically an estate plan consists of a pattern of lifetime giving, and then, at death, the plan—usually embodied in a will and/or trust – determines how assets will be dispersed.

In the U.S., a will is subject to probate, which is the procedure for recognizing the will as valid and enforceable, and for nominating the executor who will carry out the testamentary wishes contained in the will. A trust – which, in the States, is often used as a will substitute – may have been created during life (“inter vivos trust”) or by your will (“testamentary trust”). The trust is administered by a trustee and in most states, does not have to be approved by a probate court.

In France, a will is brought before a Notaire who opens a “succession” (French equivalent of
probate) and goes through the procedural steps of administering the will. An executor may be appointed in a French will, but the “executeur testamentaire” does not have the plenary powers hat a U.S. executor does with respect to a U.S. estate. The “executeur testamentaire” in France more or less helps the Notaire to do his job by acting as intermediary with heirs, helping to marshal assets and, in an international situation, helping to explain possible U.S. nuances. It is common and useful for an international lawyer, who is aware of the U.S. and French implications of an estate, to be retained by the heirs to help ease the succession proceeding through what is usually a tedious process, who can answer technical questions as they arise, and to advise on decisions that will have international implications.

Effect of your marital regime
If you are in a community property marriage one-half the assets are deemed owned by each spouse. Consequently, at death, the decedents’ estate will consist of his or her 50%. One form of community property regime, namely, “communauté universelle”, avoids tax at the death of the first spouse. However, there are some drawbacks to this.

Special characteristics of an international estate plan
The estate of an American citizen who had been residing in France at death is subject to the laws of both countries, including its tax laws. Generally speaking, U.S. law will apply to U.S. sitused real estate or a U.S. business, and French law will apply to French-based assets as well as “intangibles”, such as cash, stocks and securities, royalties from copyrights, patents, etc., wherever located.
A vexing problem for Americans is the “forced heirship rules” of France. Briefly, the forced heirship rules provide that issue (children, grandchildren, etc.) of the decedent are entitled to a specified minimum of the decedent’s assets. The percentage to which any child (or if the child is deceased, his or her children) is entitled depends on the number of children (or their own issue) left by the decedent. This includes not only children born in wedlock, but also children born out of wedlock. Any child (or the child’s heirs) has an absolute claim under French law to his or her forced share.
Is each person limited to only one will? Although not required, it is recommended that there be a separate for each country in which you have assets. The main reason is ease of administration but there may be other reasons, depending on the situation. For example, U.S.-based real estate is not subject to the French forced heirship rules, but can be willed in any manner the testator desires. This in itself may be sufficient reason to have a separate U.S. will for that asset. If a legacy to a spouse is involved, the French law provides a formula for allowing the surviving spouse to choose the best way to take her share.
CAUTION: If there is more than one will, care must be taken in the drafting so that one will does not supersede or override another.

Although trusts cannot be found in the French law, foreign trusts are recognized by the French law, and use of them enabled U.S. citizens to pursue an intelligent estate plan (especially with respect to children and spouses). The use of trusts also opened the door to some useful tax planning, especially with respect to French wealth tax (ISF). However, that planning door was effectively closed by the French law of trusts enacted in July 2011. Although it is still possible to use an existing trust or even to create one, a stringent set of rules must be followed in order to avoid large penalties. The rules call for annual filings with the French fisc and create a system of “ownership” of assets that can generate unwanted inheritance tax in a multi-generational trust.

Taxation of assets at death
This is best explained by comparing the U.S. and French civil law and tax systems: In the U.S., when one dies, an “Estate” arises. The Estate is deemed to own the assets (and liabilities) until they are distributed by the court-appointed executor. The total assets of the Estate are valued and estate tax is levied on the total net estate (assets minus debts and other liabilities). In France, assets are deemed by law to pass immediately to the decedent’s heirs (whether or not there exists a will). The heirs are deemed to own the assets from the moment of death. No “estate” exists as an interim holder of the assets. This has several important consequences, one being that there is no single tax that applies to an “estate”. Instead, each heir pays inheritance tax at the applicable rate, determined by the heir’s relationship to the decedent. Spouses are taxed at zero percent. Children, grandchildren, etc., at rates ranging up to 45%. First cousins, nieces, great-nieces, nephews and great-nephews, 55%. Everyone else, 60%.
In the U.S. there is an exclusion from estate tax of $5,250,000 of estate assets, the exclusion being applicable during life and at death to all assets no matter who is the recipient. France allows a €100,000 exclusion per child; much less for other heirs.
Foreign Tax Credit
Any inheritance tax paid in France on assets of a U.S. citizen or resident, is allowed by the U.S. as a foreign tax credit when calculating the U.S estate tax. Obviously, the U.S. estate tax exclusion being so large, relatively few estate even have to worry about filing an estate tax return.

Custody of children
While it makes good sense to deal with guardianship in both wills (if there are two wills), if you are a French resident, it is best to specify this in your French will.

Lifetime planning
Under current law, each spouse one can give up to €100.000 per child every ten years. This should be done before a Notaire and ideally, reported to the French as a “don manuel” (Form 2735). It should also be reported to the I.R.S. on Form 709.