In a marriage between a Japanese national and a foreign national, the legal heirs and the statutory inheritance shares are determined in accordance with Japanese laws when the Japanese spouse dies.
For example, if you (the foreign spouse) and your Japanese spouse have two children, you (the foreign spouse) and your two children would be the legal heirs, with you (the foreign spouse) being entitled to a statutory inheritance share of ½ and the two children each being entitled to a ¼ statutory inheritance share.
This statutory inheritance share represents the percentage of the total inheritance to which the legal heir is entitled; however, who inherits what must be determined separately.
When There is a Will
The first step is to confirm whether the deceased Japanese spouse left a will. If a will exists, then, in principle, the assets in the estate can be distributed in accordance with the terms of the will. However, when the will clearly specifies who should inherit which assets, the named heir can proceed independently with the inheritance procedures with respect to the designated assets he or she should inherit under the will.
However, despite the existence of a will, the assets in the estate are not always necessarily distributed in accordance with the terms of the will. In other words, the assets can be distributed in a way other than what is specified in the will. One reason involves Japan’s “statutorily required heirship” (in Japanese, 遺留分), which is very common in many civil law systems) requiring that a certain part of inheritance assets be “reserved” or set aside for certain heirs specified in Japanese law. If the assets inherited by the legal heirs are not enough to satisfy what the “legally required heir” is entitled to [under Japanese law], then the inheritance portion of the heirs designated in the will will be reduced in order to meet the legal requirement.
Consultation about Division of Inheritance
When there is no will or when the division of the estate is different from the will, all of the legal heirs must consult about the division of the inheritance and decide who will get what portion of the inheritance.
This consultation about the division of the inheritance is not tied to the statutory inheritance share, and therefore, the portion for each heir can differ from the statutory inheritance share. For example, it is possible to decide that the surviving spouse will inherit the entire estate and the children will inherit nothing. In fact, these consultations about division of inheritance occur very frequently.
When the consultation about the division of the inheritance is completed, a document known as a “memorandum of division of inheritance” is prepared. In this memorandum, the results of the discussions during the consultation about who will inherit what and how much is written down, and is then signed by all the heirs who also affix their personal seals to it.
Details of Inheritance Procedures
When the inheritance is made in accordance with the terms of the will, a copy of the deceased person's family register and a copy of the heirs’ family registers can be prepared, the heir by itself can use the will to change the title of the property and close out bank deposit accounts.
When the division of the inheritance is agreed upon, a copy of the family register of the deceased person from birth to death and a copy of the family register of all the heirs must be prepared, as well as a certificate of seal impression of the actual seals affixed to the “memorandum of division of inheritance”. When carrying out inheritance procedures such as changing the title of any real property and closing out bank deposit accounts, you must submit these family register copies, the memorandum of division of inheritance, and a certificate of seal impression to the Legal Affairs Bureau and financial institutions. If you are a foreign national and do not have a seal, you will be asked for a certificate of signature, so if you live in Japan, it might be easier to register your seal.
Kobe Legal Partners Shihoshoshi Law Office has handled numerous inheritance cases and has provided legal consultation to many foreigners from various countries. We would be happy to help you with any inheritance procedures should your Japanese spouse pass away.