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An Italian woman who marries a German and settles in Belgium would have the option of choosing whether her heirs inherit under Italian or Belgian law, under new rules backed by the Parliament on Tuesday.

The new regulation aims to make it easier to settle inheritances and avoid disputes when someone dies and leaves a will and the legal systems of more than one Member State are involved.

According to Kurt Lechner (EPP, DE), who steered the proposal through Parliament, cross-border inheritances make up 10% of all successions in the EU, i.e. almost 450,000 a year, involving some €123 billion.

EU-wide criteria would it make clear which Member State's legal system applies when an inheritance could arguably be subject to the laws of more than one, thus avoiding costly legal disputes and cutting red tape for heirs.

The new regulation would also introduce a European Certificate of Succession designed to make the legal position clearer for the person who draws up the will and to safeguard the rights of heirs, as well as other parties, such as creditors.

A choice of two new rules

The proposed regulation would introduce two new principles for dealing with international successions.

First, if someone dies in a Member State that is not their home country, their succession would generally be dealt with under the law of the Member State where they last had their place of "habitual residence", by the courts and authorities of that Member State. This would avoid conflicts that could otherwise arise if several courts in different Member States declared themselves competent.

Second, the person drawing up a will would also have the option of having his or her will read under the law of his or her Member State of origin. This would give EU citizens a new right, which MEPs believe would be a major improvement, as it would allow anyone living abroad within the EU to retain close links with their home country and ensure that specific national provisions, such as rules governing gifts made during a lifetime, are respected.

In the example of the Italian woman who marries a German and lives for a long time in Belgium, Belgium is more likely to be her centre of interests. Without the proposed regulation, there could be a conflict between the courts in her heirs' home country (Germany), in her own country (Italy), and in the country where she has property (Belgium).

European Certificate of Succession

The European Certificate of Succession would be created to ensure that the heirs, creditors and competent authorities apply the terms of the succession directly, using swifter and cheaper procedures. Use of this certificate would not be mandatory.

No impact on national law

The new regulation would have no impact on the situation of people who remain resident in their home country. It would not change national laws governing succession, property, or tax arrangement and it would not introduce any harmonisation of national laws.

The regulation would not apply in UK and Ireland, as their respective governments decided to exercise their right to opt out, nor in Denmark, as it is always the case for these matters.

The Lechner report was passed with 589 votes in favour, 21against and 79 abstentions.

Next steps

Parliament and Council have reached an informal agreement that will have now to be confirmed for the legislation to enter into force.

Procedure: ordinary legislative procedure