Writing a Will with International Assets: What You Need to Know

April 2024

It’s becoming increasingly common for individuals to own assets in more than one country. This includes property or land, as well as overseas bank accounts and investments. It can also encompass business interests.

If you hold assets in more than one country, this is something you will need to take into account when planning for the future and writing a Will.

How will international assets impact your estate?

An estate that includes international assets is usually referred to as a cross-border estate. These types of estates can range hugely in size and complexity, from straightforward UK-based estates with a timeshare holiday property in Europe, to expansive estates with assets that are evenly spread between two or more countries.

The complicating factor in cross-border estates is that each different country has different rules and regulations about how estates must be dealt with. When an individual dies leaving assets in only one country, their full estate is dealt with under the rules of that one country. However, if the individual had left assets in two different countries, there would be two different sets of inheritance rules to navigate.

How complicated this is likely to be depends mainly on the countries and the types of assets that are involved. If you’re a British national who owns property or other assets in a country that’s signed up to the European Succession Regulation Rules, this could be a simple issue to address. These regulations give British nationals the right to state that they wish for their entire estate (including any international assets) to be administered under the terms of English law.

However, if you are not a British national and/or the international assets you own are in a country not signed up to the European Succession Regulation Rules, things could be more complex. In these situations, it can be difficult to determine which jurisdiction’s inheritance laws will need to be adhered to.

Whatever type of cross-border estate you have, we would always recommend accessing specialist legal advice. Solicitors who specialise in cross-border estates will be able to liaise with equivalent specialists in the other jurisdictions where you hold assets to ensure that all legal bases have been covered.

All of us hope that our estate plans will not be needed for many years, but taking the time to put plans in place now can ensure things will be as straightforward as possible for our loved ones should the unexpected happen. 

Where is your legal domicile?

One of the first questions you will need to consider when making plans for a cross-border estate is that of legal domicile. This will not necessarily be either the country in which you were born or the country you currently reside in. Rather, it is the country that you consider to be your permanent home. This is often – though certainly not always – the place where the majority of your long-term assets are based.

It’s likely that your legal domicile will be a factor in the question of which jurisdiction’s terms your estate should be administered under. In some situations, it may be possible for your estate to be administered under the terms of your domicile country rather than the country in which the assets are held. However, this will depend on the laws in all the countries involved and how they interact with each other. Again, this is something that will need to be taken into careful consideration during your estate planning.

What are the laws about inheritance in the countries in which you hold assets?

Many countries have much more prescriptive rules on inheritance than we do under English and Welsh law. It is important to make sure you have an understanding of the rules in any countries where you hold assets.

For example, many countries have strict rules on both who can inherit from an estate and who can take on the task of administering it. If you own land, property or other assets in one of these countries (and the European Succession Regulation Rules do not apply) you may find you are only able to appoint certain members of your family to administer or inherit it.

If you’re writing a Will for a cross-border estate, it’s important to ensure you’ve taken expert advice not just on English law, but also on the law in any other relevant countries. Gaining a full understanding of how any overseas regulations might affect who you can bequeath certain assets to will enable you to take this into account in your wider estate planning. For example, if you own a holiday property in a country that will only allow you to leave it to your children, you would not therefore be able to leave it to your spouse or any step-children. You may therefore wish to arrange for any assets in the UK to be distributed in a way that takes this into account.

Should you make separate wills?

An individual cannot have more than one valid Will in most situations. However, in the case of cross-border estates, you may be able to make separate wills to deal with the assets within each jurisdiction.

You may choose to do this in order to makes things more straightforward for whoever is administering your estate. Alternatively, it may be a necessity, especially if your estate is split between countries with very different expectations of what a valid Will must contain. 

This is a delicate legal situation, and you would need to ensure you were working with an experienced professional. Specialist expertise is vital here, as it will have to be clear that each Will deals solely with certain assets, and that they do not revoke or contradict each other.

If you are looking for specialist advice on planning for a cross-border estate, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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