Henri Capitant Law Review (English)

The Hereditary Reserve

Editorial - Michel Grimaldi, Professor at the University Panthéon-Assas (Paris-II), Sophie Gaudemet, Professor at the University Paris-Sud (Paris-XI)

1. – Because it reflects a certain idea of the family, the economy and death, the law of succession is a major element in the civil constitution of a country (A. de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique [Democracy in America]; A. Colin, « Le droit de succession dans le Code Civil » [Succession law in the Civil Code]). This can be seen from the fact that in revolutionary and counter revolutionary times the law of succession is always at the heart of the turbulence generated by civil law. Witness the fervour that inspired Mirabeau, speaking on the subject of successions, to make one of the finest speeches that was ever given before the revolutionary parliaments (« Discours sur l’égalité des partages dans les successions en ligne directe » [Address on equal partition in successions in the direct line]).


Paradoxically, for the same reasons the law of succession is rooted in a society’s customs, which themselves derive from the place: « the various customs of peoples are not the result of chance or fantasy; they are based on the diversity of their position », in the words of Maleville, who illustrated his argument by reference to the customs of pre-revolutionary law, where estates were equally partitioned in the North, where wealth was mainly held in the form of movables, but passed on by institution of an heir in the South, where wealth consisted mainly of immovables. [1] This is why the laws, here more than elsewhere, cannot do everything. Sometimes revolutionary boldness does not take root. Those that aim to destroy the old ways, established practices or enduring customs, are at risk of having little effect (R. Le Balle, « L’influence des lois successorales sur le progrès social » [The influence of succession laws on social progress]).


2. – Testamentary freedom, in principle and in scope, is one of the key elements of any regime of succession. Le Play, in his famous work which now sounds like an early invitation to the study of comparative law (La réforme sociale en France déduite de l’observation comparée des peuples européens [Social reform in France deduced from the comparative observation of European peoples]), adopted the degree of testamentary freedom as a criterion for a system of classification which distinguishes between forced preservation (system based on the right of primogeniture), forced partition (system established by the French Civil Code of 1804) and testamentary freedom. At the present time, the classification is usually binary, and a distinction is made between systems in which the testator’s freedom is unlimited, which is the norm in the common law countries, and systems in which a testator’s freedom is limited by the existence of a hereditary reserve, which is the principle in the countries that practise continental law. [2] The difference between the two must not be exaggerated, as the lack of a quantitative limit is balanced by strict supervision of the quality of the consent, as can be seen from the large number of disputes involving the concept of undue influence (Y. Lequette, note Paris Court of Appeal, 23 January 1990, Caron). [3]


There is a lively debate between the advocates of testamentary freedom, who reject the idea of a reserve, to which they attribute every ill, and the advocates of the reserve, who argue that testators may act unreasonably when arranging the disposal of their assets after their death. It is very difficult to decide between these two theses which both rely upon arguments drawn from economics and demographics (Le Play, op. cit., see Mirabeau, op. cit.). It seems that, in this instance, there is nothing to be learned from the human and social sciences and that the choice we make depends essentially upon our idea of ownership, of the power of the privileges that it confers, and therefore, finally, the relationship that we determine between being and having. Tocqueville put it very well, when writing of equal partition: « La loi du partage égal procède par deux voies : en agissant sur la chose, elle agit sur l’homme ; en agissant sur l’homme, elle arrive à la chose » (op. cit.) [The law of equal partition proceeds by two methods: by acting upon things, it acts upon persons; by influencing persons, it affects things].


Reading the same pages, this debate seems, in other ways, to be astonishingly modern.


On the one hand, equality, which is so valued in our own time because it is non-discriminatory, is at the core of the debate. Mirabeau’s indictment of the will is a discourse about equality. For some, equality among heirs is an extension of equality among citizens, as the family structure prefigures social structure.


On the other hand, there is unanimous agreement that no one has a right to an inheritance, which goes against the implications of certain provisions of contemporary succession law: [4] the right to inherit is not a natural law, but an ordinary civil right that is acknowledged or excluded by society on the grounds of public interest (Portalis, Discours préliminaire [Preliminary address]).


3. – Once the principle of the reserve has been accepted, the regime has to be developed.


First of all, the beneficiaries must be identified, which means identifying the heirs who are entitled to their legal share. In the past, this only included relations in the direct line, i.e. descendants and ascendants. At the present time, ascendants are excluded, possibly because an inheritance to the previous generation is seen as an anomaly that the deceased should be able to exclude. Above all, the spouse is now included (fairly awkwardly, as the spouse is only entitled to a legal share if there are no descendants), which places a restriction on the spouses’ freedom to determine what happens to their property after their death, when they enter into a marriage contract. [5]


Finally, the quantum of the reserve, expressed as a percentage, must be determined. It must not be so small that the reserve becomes ridiculous, nor so large that the testator’s freedom to dispose of his property is nullified. But between these two extremes, everything is possible: Bonaparte himself suggested that the percentage of the reserve should diminish as the assets in the estate increased (Fenet, Recueil complet des travaux préparatoires du Code civil [Complete collection of the works preparatory to the Civil Code]).


It is still to be decided if the reserve is payable in kind or in value. French law has moved from one idea to the other by a long process of evolution (P. Catala, La réforme des liquidations successorales [The reform of succession liquidations]). Immediately after the Code, the reserve was defined by the courts as a fraction of the estate itself, [6] so that the heir should receive it in kind, which prevented the assets from leaving the family and ensured that the right of the oldest child was maintained (with compensation for the younger child) (A. Colin, op. cit.). This was fiercely criticised by Le Play (op. cit.), no doubt excessively so (A. Colin, op. cit.). At the present time when the only remaining penalty is a reduction in value, it takes the form of a claim, which can be awkward to liquidate. Above all, it has undergone profound changes: it no longer prevents assets passing to a stranger or the oldest child (Y. Flour, « Libéralités et libertés » [Liberalities and freedoms]. Has this totally changed the nature of the institution (C. Brenner, Le nouveau visage de la réserve héréditaire [The new face of the hereditary reserve])? It might be said that this change is excessive in the light of other rules (drawn from the law of matrimonial property regimes or divorce): removal of assets received by inheritance or as a gift from the community of property; [7] the fact that it is impossible to order a compensatory benefit in ownership made up of such assets [8] or practices (use of closed family companies), which show that the idea of retaining assets in the family is still alive. [9]


Finally, we must ask to what extent the institution of the reserve is affected by public policy considerations. Certainly, in French law, the courts have never been able to reduce the reserve of their own motion: the reduction must be requested. And, once the succession process has begun, the heir has always been able to renounce their reserve. However, in the past, the testator appeared to be even more restricted by the reserve, as he could not ask the heir for a renunciation in advance, as this was prevented by the prohibition on pacts about future successions. In our own time, French law makes a new exception to this principle and now allows heirs to renounce the reserve in advance, under strict conditions (C. Brenner, op. cit.).


4. – These changes in domestic law must be taken into account in international private law, when determining whether the reserve is covered by international public policy, which would prevent the application of a foreign law that does not recognise it, even though that law has been acknowledged as applicable under the conflict of laws rules. This is a live issue, as the European regulation of 4 July 2012, relating to the law that applies to international successions, expressly mentions the public policy exception. There is no shortage of arguments by which to raise the reserved portion to the level of international public policy understood, where appropriate, like local public policy. (M. Grimaldi, « Brèves réflexions sur l’ordre public et la réserve héréditaire » [Some brief thoughts on public policy and the hereditary reserve]). [10]


September 2013


[1] Fenet, Recueil complet des travaux préparatoires du Code civil, t. XII, p. 310.


[2] See particularly Les successions, Travaux de l’Association Henri Capitant, t. LX, 2010.


[3] See M. Goré, « Estate planning : quelques aspects de l’anticipation successorale en droit américain », Le droit privé français à la fin du xxe siècle, Études offertes à P. Catala, 2001, p. 382, no. 18.


[4] Particularly Articles 754 paragraph 2 and 755 paragraph 2 of the French Civil Code (see M. Grimaldi, « La représentation de l’héritier renonçant », Defrénois 2008, p. 25, no. 8; F. Terré, Y. Lequette and S. Gaudemet, Les successions, Les libéralités, 4th ed., Dalloz, 2014, no. 59).


[5] M. Grimaldi, « Droits du conjoint survivant : brève analyse d’une loi transactionnelle », AJ fam. 2002, p. 48.


[6]Court of Cassation Divisions combined 27 November 1863, Lavialle, S. 1863.1.513, D.P. 1864.1.5, note Brésillon, Les grands arrêts de la jurisprudence civile, t. 1, no. 138.


[7]Art. 1405 French Civil Code.


[8]Art. 274, 2° French Civil Code.


[9] P. Catala, pref. I. Kondyli, La protection de la famille par la réserve héréditaire en droit français et grec comparé, LGDJ, 1997.


[10]However, this is not the way chosen by the first decisions on the subject (TGI Paris, 10 July 2013, n° 06/13502; see also, TGI Paris, 2 December 2014, n° 10/05228.)

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