Vol. XXXVII No. 2

A Tale of Two Countries: Comparing the Law of Inheritance in Two Seemingly Opposite Systems

Abstract: Although at first glance French and U.S. inheritance laws appear to be diametrically opposed, this paper provides a deeper analysis. In doing so, it explains that nuances within both systems have made the laws more similar than they initially appear. U.S. inheritance laws, explicitly characterized by freedom of testation, include numerous substantive limits on how a testator may dispose of her property at death. Courts often use doctrines such as mental capacity, undue influence, and fraud to void wills that do not provide for the decedent’s children. Also, because over one half of all Americans die intestate, or without a will, children are provided for in this way as well. French inheritance laws, which on their face appear to require everyone to leave at least half of their property to their children, similarly allow for significant deviation from this rule. Some techniques, such as life insurance, tontines, and usufruct interests have been around for a while. Since 2006, however, the law has given French parents even greater ability to control the distribution of their estates. This paper examines French and U.S. inheritance law, with an eye towards these initial differences, and deeper similarities.

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