Don’t Take Your Testamentary Freedom for Granted

river-frontage-233041_960_720Despite recent events, the United States is still the land of the free.  And one of the (less discussed) freedoms we enjoy in the U.S. is the freedom of testation – the freedom to dispose of our assets at our death however we wish.  With few exceptions, we in the U.S. are free to disinherit children, leave insufficient assets to a spouse, and benefit pets rather than family members, to list a few examples.  The one notable exception is that most states (including Massachusetts) have an elective share statute which ensures that a spouse cannot be totally disinherited.

While this “testamentary freedom” may seem like common sense to us, it is unusual and does not exist in most countries around the world.  In much of Latin America, contintental Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, “mandatory inheritance” or “forced heirship” laws require that spouses and descendants (and sometimes even parents or siblings) inherit, regardless of what a decedent’s Will states.  These laws are especially common in civil law jurisdictions.  The rationale of these laws is the legal theory that family members have an automatic right to inherit property and that decedents have an obligation to adequately provide for them.  In most countries, the forced heirship law applies to a portion of the estate (e.g., 1/3), although it may be a large portion.  The decedent may dispose of the rest as he or she wishes.

In the United States, Louisiana is the only state with a forced heirship law.  But even Louisiana’s law is limited in that it only prohibits the disinheritance of children who are under age 24 or who are disabled or incapacitated.  Puerto Rico also gives a decedent’s children the right to inherit a portion of the Puerto Rico estate, provided that a surviving spouse retains a usufruct (or a life estate) in the property.

For U.S. clients who own real property abroad, it is important to consider forced heirship laws of the country where the property is located as part of your estate planning.  Otherwise that property may pass under that country’s forced heirship law, and not as designated in your estate plan.

Here is an example that came up recently in my practice:

Sarah died as a Massachusetts resident owning a valuable vacation home in Puerto Rico.  She was survived by her husband, Jack, and three grown children.  Her Massachusetts estate plan left all of her assets to Jack.  Nonetheless, Puerto Rico’s forced heirship laws required that a portion of the Puerto Rico home pass to the three children.  Jack retained only a usufruct, or life estate.  The property was sold, but only a part of the proceeds passed to Jack.  The rest passed to the children.  It was not the result Jack wanted, or Sarah would have wanted.

If you own real property in a forced heirship jurisdiction, you should discuss with your estate planning attorney how that property will pass after your death under that jurisdiction’s laws.  In some cases, there may be an opportunity, with advance planning, to circumvent the laws and obtain the result you want.  For example, you may want to form an entity to own the property.

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