Inheritance matters

03.08.2023 - Article

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) issued by a German probate court, a European Certificate of Succession (ECS) or a certificate of executorship.

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 succession 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 may suffice 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.

If there is no will, or only one that was drawn up abroad with grant of probate, and if the estate includes assets situated in Germany, a German certificate of inheritance may not be necessary if the heir can prove his or her right (e.g. vis-à-vis banks) by another means. There is no legal obligation on the heir to prove his or her right of inheritance by means of a certificate of inheritance.

If a certificate of inheritance is nevertheless required, the heir can apply for a certificate of inheritance by writing directly to the German probate court. It is also possible to apply through a solicitor. If there is more than one heir, it is normally sufficient for one of the heirs to apply for a joint certificate of inheritance, provided it states that the other heirs have accepted the inheritance.

The competent probate court is usually the local court for the district in which the deceased was last resident.

As a rule, the information provided in the application not only needs to be proved, it also needs to be confirmed with a declaration in lieu of an oath, which needs to be notarised either directly by the competent probate court or by a notary in Germany.

In individual cases, the German probate court may also accept an affidavit sworn before an Irish notary public as sufficient if it is certified with an apostille. The notary public can obtain this for you. Please be sure to enquire with the German probate court in advance whether an affidavit issued in Ireland in line with local law is recognised as sufficient, and if possible also agree the text with the probate court.

Under German law, the estate of a deceased person (Erblasser) passes directly to the heir or heirs (known as universal succession). Unlike in Ireland, 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 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 is more than one heir, 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.

The German missions abroad cannot provide detailed legal advice 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.

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.

If the heirs are unknown and the death occurred in Ireland, it can sometimes be helpful to request a Irish 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 here, even if you are in Germany.

Renouncing an inheritance in Germany

Certificate of inheritance ('Erbschein')

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

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