What procedures are normally involved in inheritance in Japan?
Generally when a person dies in Japan without a written will, the legal heirs under Japan’s Civil Code need to confer and reach agreement about the distribution of their respective shares of the estate. Once agreement is reached, the heirs will affix their registered seals or “jitsuin” (registered at their local city hall) to an Agreement of Division of Inheritance reflecting the results of their consultation and agreement, and attach their registered seal certificates to this written agreement. Without the seals of all legal heirs, the deceased’s bank accounts will be frozen and it will become impossible to move withdraw or transfer any money at all.
Determining who the heirs is somewhat complex and may differ greatly from the inheritance laws in your own country. In Japan, the spouse of the deceased will always be an heir. However, any children, including children from previous marriages and children born out of wedlock, will also be heirs. If there are no children, the deceased’s parents will be heirs. If the deceased’s parents are not alive, then the deceased’s grandparents will be included as heirs. If both the parents and the grandparents of the deceased are no longer living, then the brothers and sisters of the deceased will be considered heirs (or the children of any brothers and sisters who have predeceased).
Example 1: If you had children with your Japanese spouse, you would need to consult and reach an agreement with the children about the division of the estate after the death of your Japanese spouse. In most cases, there are no problems and the agreement of all heirs to the division of the estate can be reached fairly smoothly.
Example 2: If you have a Japanese spouse who has children from a previous marriage (or children born out of wedlock), you will need to consult and reach an agreement with these children from the previous marriage. If there are no children from your own marriage or your spouse’s previous marriage, you will need to consult with and reach an agreement with your deceased spouse’s parents or siblings.
Depending on family dynamics, language and other cultural issues, reaching consensus with the other heirs can be problematic, and can be very time-consuming and frustrating, to the say the least. At any time during this consultative process, any heir has the right to have the handling of the estate referred to a family court. This means that the court will have complete control over all assets and procedures. The estates assets will be completely frozen until the court has made a final decision. This can leave many foreign spouses without their own separate assets in an extremely precarious financial position. In the worst case, the family court may take several years for final resolution—with the assets frozen during the entire time.
If you end up in this situation, are you prepared to smoothly navigate the family differences and cultural nuances?
For many foreign spouses, this can be the trickiest part of inheritance procedures. Even if you think you have an understanding about the estate distribution, the process can be overwhelming and the laws may seem incomprehensible. Procedures can become even more complicated based on individual family circumstances and dynamics. The best solution is preparation!
Kobe Legal Partners is here to help you and provide guidance in English at every step.
Is there a way to smoothly resolve estate distribution issues without an “Agreement of Division of Inheritance”?
When assets in Japan are inherited, it may be necessary to obtain certain documents from abroad if a foreign heir is included in the Japanese family register or certificate of residence.
Even if all the documents are collected, the inheritance procedures cannot move forward if the heirs cannot reach agreement about the division of the estate. In some cases, it may even be necessary to resort to the courts for resolution.
The simplest way to avoid this worst-case scenario is to prepare a written notarized will. This involves first deciding which assets should be inherited by which heirs, and then having this reflected in a written will prepared by a shiho-shoshi law and notarized at a notary’s office. If there is a written notarized will, the consultation and agreement process among heirs concerning the division of the estate is no longer necessary. Since you will not need to consult with the other heirs, you can begin the procedures simply by collecting the necessary documents.
However, you should be aware that Japanese law provides for a legally protected heir’s inheritance share. This means that even if a legal heir is not included as an heir in a written will, such heir has a guaranteed legal right to a certain fixed share of the estate. However, whether this right is actually exercised or not is up to the legal heir. Since there is a need to consider strategies for handling this and other issues, it is advisable to consult with a specialist shiho-shoshi lawyer about the preparation of a written will.
How Kobe Legal Partners can help you with estate planning
- Advice about inheritance and estate planning in English
- Draft a written will that is consistent with applicable laws after confirming the testator’s intentions
- Consultations with the notary about the written will
- Attend as a witness when the written will is finalized at the notary’s office
- Execute the will, administer the estate, and take all procedures for inheritance of the estate
- Prepare a lifetime inheritance tax strategy plan