Lawyer Video on Probate in Europe
Our special interest blog www.internationalprobatelaw.com deals with the matter of how to administer German-American estates, how to obtain probate in Europe (especially Germany, Austria and England), the overseas succession laws and estate taxes (death taxes) in Europe.
Contentious Probate Proceedings in Germany (Erbscheinverfahren)
Normally, German probate cases are dealt with the local surrogate court (Amtsgericht). They issue the German grant of probate (also referred to as letter of succession or letter of administration) in a quite straight forward proceeding. Compared to the USA, German probate courts are not involved in the administration of the German estate. Once, the court has issued the grant, the judge’s job is done. For more on non-contentious probate in Germany see the post “How to challenge a will in Germany” as well as various articles about this topic on Cross Channel Lawyers.
In the unfortunate case that someone challenges a will in an international probate case (contentious probate), matters become much more complicated and expensive.
This Video deals with the 24 most frequently asked Questions on Overseas Probate
The overseas probate law experts at Graf Legal assist with international estate matters between the USA and Europe since 2003. In our experience, these are the questions most American clients run into when they are faced with an international inheritance case. German lawyer Bernhard Schmeilzl answers them in the video below. The list of questions contains the respective start time for each question so you can jump right to the specific topic you are interested in:
1) What is an “Erbschein”? (00:11)
2) Is the process for hiring a German lawyer different from hiring a lawyer in the States? (00:57)
3) How much does it cost to hire a European Lawyer? (02:06)
4) My deceased relative owned property in Europe. Do I need a separate grant of probate for those assets? (03:04)
5) How does German or English probate differ from American probate? (04:01)
6) Can I be personally held liable for the debts of an international estate? (04:47)
7) What documents do I need to submit to the German and English probate courts to have access to he estate? (05:47)
8) How long does the international probate process take? (06:58)
9) Will I have to travel to Germany or England in order to access the assets my loved one land? (07:41)
10) What are the rules of intestacy in Germany? (08:22)
11) How can we sell foreign assets in an estate? (09:16)
12) How can I get access to assets in Germany or England? (10:09)
13) Who administers a foreign estate if there is no Will? (11:07)
14) How can I swear the oath or give the affidavit with regards to the probate application? (12:11)
15) How do I get an inheritance tax clearance from German and England? (13:20)
16) Is there an estate tax on foreign assets? (14:29)
17) I received a letter from German probate court because a relative has died. What do I need to do? (15:14)
18) Is a United States Will valid in Germany and England? (16:04)
19) What are “forced heirship” rules? (16:56)
20) Am I entitled to a share of the estate if a foreign relative has died? (17:53)
21) What happens if someone contests the Will in Germany? (19:01)
22) Can I act as the executor or administrator abroad myself? (19:49)
23) I have foreign assets. How can I ensure they avoid probate? (20:22)
24) What is the principle of universal succession? (21:21)
Or just watch the entire video here
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The Process and Main Stages of Civil Litigation in Germany
Filing a Civil Complaint
In order to initiate a civil lawsuit (Zivilprozess) in Germany, the plaintiff (Kläger) files a complaint with the competent German court (see here). This complaint is called “Klage” or “Klageschrift”, which means “statement of claim”.
After due registration by the court and a very preliminary compliance check with regards to the formal requirements set out by the German Civil Procedure Rules, the complaint is then served to the defendant. In most cases, the court itself takes care of the service procedure, but only after the claimant has either paid the court fees (Gerichtskosten) or has been granted legal aid by the court, which requires the claimant to demonstrate reasonable chances of success.
Personal service of civil litigation documents is normally not required in Germany and – as long as there is a valid address of the defendant within Germany — the claimant does not have to bother with any matters of service at all (for details see here).
In addition to the Klageschrift (complaint) itself, the court will serve to the defendant a letter setting a deadline for the defendant to inform the court whether they wish to dispute the claim. This deadline is usually 2 weeks if the defendant is resident in Germany but can be significantly longer if the defendant resides outside Germany. The court documents will contain detailed explanatory notes on the rights and obligations of the defendant. If the defendant misses this deadline, the German court will issue a default judgment (Veräumnisurteil), which is explained here.
In the Klageschrift (civil complaint), the plaintiff or their lawyer first explain why this specific German court has jurisdiction (Zuständigkeit) and demonstrate that all other formal requirements are satisfied, for example that the plaintiff is duly represented by a German licensed lawyer which is required on the High Court level and up (Postulationsfähigkeit), that the case is not already pending elsewhere (anderweitige Rechtshängigkeit), and that the lawsuit is not frivolous (Rechtsschutzbedürfnis). This part of the complaint is called “Zulässigkeit der Klage” (admissibility of the complaint).
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Get the best of both worlds: a professional German judge in a non-public civil proceeding
Parties to civil litigation often fear the public nature of a lawsuit, be it in the USA or in Germany. This is especially true for commercial and corporate cases as well as any litigation involving celebrities. The parties do not want their competitors and the public to learn about confidential business matters or — in case of celebrities — their private lives.
Therefore, many businesses and high profile individuals use arbitration clauses in their contracts to avoid ending up in a court room ful of reporters. However, arbitration is usually significantly more expensive compared to a “normal” German court case, because the arbitrators are high profile lawyers from big law firms who charge hourly rates north of EUR 500 easily. This is particularly trie in Germany where the statutory court fees are comparatively low (see here).
Furthermore, picking the right arbitrator(s) is difficult and time consuming. The parties need to agree on a competent lawyer who is available in the near future and who’s law office does not have a conflict of interest.
Mediation / Arbitration at German High Courts
In many cases, the ideal solution to this may be to opt for a German “Güterichterverfahren“, an open mediation / arbitration proceeding which takes place before a German high court judge (Güterichter) and to which the basic principles of the German civil procedure rules do apply. However, such a Güteverfahren is entirely confidential and the parties are free to define the scope of the dispute, i.e. they can include additional matters to achieve an overall solution. The German mediation / arbitration hearings in the Güterichterverfahren usually take place at the German court house but behind closed doors. There are official hearing minutes (Protokoll) but they are only available to the parties, not to the public.
What are the advantages of German high court arbitration?
German civil law judges actively encourage the parties to a legal dispute to consider such a court arbitration proceeding, even if a “normal” civil lawsuit has already been filed, see section 278 para. 5 German Civil Procedure Code. The advantages of this German high court arbitration are:
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May a Witness in German Civil Litigation refuse to give Testimony?
Under German Rules of Civil Procedure, any natural person, including minors, can be named as a witness (Zeuge) by a party to a civil procedure. The civil court then decides on whether and to what extent these witnesses (as designated by the parties in their briefs to the court) need to be heard, i.e. whether — in the view of the court — the specific issue which the witness shall give testimony on, is:
(i) relevant for the court’s decision; and
(ii) still in dispute between Plaintiff and Defendant after the exchange of briefs.
If the answer to both requirements is yes, the respective witnesses will consequently be summoned (geladen) by the German civil court. In practice, each witness will be sent a letter by the civil court (Zeugenladung) which demands the witness to attend an oral hearing in order to be questioned as a relevant witness on one or several specific issue(s), the so called “topics for questioning” (Beweisthema), see s. 377 German Civil Procedure Code. Thus, the witness is informed a few weeks prior to the actual oral hearing date what the court will ask him to testify on. The witness summons only describes this topic in rather broad terms. Normally, the witness summons letter does not contain any specific questions (this is different when it comes to expert witnesses). A typical example of the content of such a German civil court summons letter to a witness of fact would be:
“In the civil lawsuit between A and B regarding a car accident on Z-street on the … around … o’clock you have been named as a witness. You shall give testimony about the details how the accident occurred.”
In some cases, the court may permit the witness to testify in writing, i.e. by answering the questions by sending in a letter. This is, however, the exception to the rule.
Duties of a Witness under German Civil Procedure Law
The standard procedure is that the witness must attend the court hearing in person. Every person summoned by a German civil court has the duty to appear in court, to testify truthfully (s. 390 et seqq. German Civil Procedure Rules) and to swear an oath if this is demanded by the court (which it very rarely is, as I have explained here).
This general obligation of a German witness to give testimony in a civil lawsuit exists, however, exclusively vis-a-vis the court itself. There are no pre-trial depositions in Germany. Instead, the witness is questioned only in court and primarily by the judge.
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In German court, it’s never too late to agree to arbitration instead of litigation
If you find yourself entangled in German litigation (Zivilprozess), in particular business litigation, you and your opponent may not want to discuss your quarrels in the public eye. But can you still opt for arbitration even if the agreement between you and your German business partner does not contain an arbitration clause? Yes, you absolutely can. In fact, German civil procedure rules do encourage the parties to apply for the civil case to be transferred to a so called “Güterichter” (arbitration judge).
German civil courts have installed special chambers for such arbitration proceedings at all levels, see for example High Court Hannover. That way, the parties get a fully qualified and independent German judge as their mediator / arbitrator and they do not have to shop around. Costs for such a professional judge as arbitrator are also considerably lower than those of private arbitrators, because – from a cost perspective – the arbitration is still part of the official lawsuit. Therefore, arbitration proceedings before a German state judge (instead of a private arbitrator) have become increasing popular in Germany over the last 15 years and there are hardly any high profile business lawsuits in open German court anymore.
Arbitration before a professional German judge
The only requirement for this switch from German civil litigation (i.e. a classic civil lawsuit) to German arbitration before a professional judge is that the parties agree to it. Acording to section 278 para. (5) German Cicil Procedure Rules, the court shall suggest such arbitration to the parties. In fact, even if the German court does not initiate such a transfer, the parties to the legal dispute can “force” the court to transfer the case to the arbitration judge (Güterichter). From that moment on, the parties discuss the case in private, the hearings are no longer open to the public and everything that is discussed during the arbitration proceedings remains confidential. Not even the civil case judge (Richter im streitigen Verfahren) who has transferred the matter to the arbitration judge (Güterichter) will be informed about what went on in the arbitration proceedings. So even if the arbitration attempt ends up being unsuccessful, the parties go back to the initial judge and the original civil trial proceeds, neither party must fear to have disclosed any information detrimental to their German court case. Another advantage is that the parties can include additional aspects in an overall settlement agreement, i.e. they are not being bound by the core of the initial lawsuit.
Arbitration outside the German state court system
An alternative to having the civil lawsuit transferred to an arbitration judge (Güterichter) at the same German civil court, the parties can also opt for private arbitration. In that case, they choose their own arbitrator or arbitration panel and decide on their arbitration rules. The German civil court will then simply stay the proceedings according to section 278a para. (2) German Cicil Procedure Rules. In that case, costs will be higher, because such private arbitration is a separate proceeding and thus takes place outside the official cost schedule. Should the private arbitration attempt fail, each party can motion to the German civil court to resume the civil trial.
German Litigation vs. German Arbitration
In summary, switching from German civil litigation to arbitration (either before a German state judge or a private arbitrator) is usually a very good idea. Especially, if the parties do not wish the details of the civil dispute to become public. If the arbitration attempt fails, nothing is lost. Each party can simply state that they consider the arbitration unsuccessful. Then the regular civil lawsuit is continued and the German civil court will eventually issue a judgment.
More information on litigation and legal fees in Germany is available in these posts:
- German Litigation Experts explain Civil Procedure Rules
- How expensive is a German Lawsuit?
- Expert Reports on German Law
For legal advice on German civil procedure and how to successfully litigate in Germany, contact the international litigation experts and trial lawyers of GrafLegal.
Copyright & Disclaimer All posts are copyrighted material. This blog is made available by Graf & Partners for educational purposes as well as to give you general information on German law, not to provide specific legal advice. Simply reading this blog does, of course, not result in any attorney client relationship between you and Graf & Partners. The blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice provided by a licensed professional attorney in a specific legal matter.
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Checklist: Effective Defense against a Civil Action in Germany
In this post, we explain how to best react and defend your case when you find yourself at the receiving end of a German civil lawsuit. More specifically, how to avoid making major blunders right at the early stages of German civil proceedings.
Rule 1: Do not ignore letters from a German civil court
This piece of advice appears obvious but, in our experience, it nevertheless happens quite often: Many clients tend to either fully ignore such legal correspondence or to at least delay dealing with the matter until important procedural deadlines have already expired. Such deadlines, for example for the submission of a formal reply and for the application to dismiss the case, are set by the German civil court in the very first court order. These initial deadlines set by the German court are so called “Notfristen” which means that they cannot be extended and you can not be reinstated if you miss to adhere to them.
Thus, whatever you will eventually decide to do about the lawsuit, you must first ensure that you fully understand what the letter from the court (or from the opponent’s lawyer) says and what the relevant time limits are. Such initial letters from a German civil court typically inform you about the fact that you have been sued in Germany and for what. They usually also contain either a specific calendar date or a period of time (e.g. two weeks from the date of service of the letter) within which you need to respond to the court.
At this stage of the proceedings you should:
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Workshop on German Civil Procedure for U.S. Litigation Lawyers
Know and effectively use the tools of German Civil Procedure
Due to Brexit, many international businesses shift their focus from Britain to Germany when it comes to contract drafting in general and jurisdiction clauses in particular (see brochure “Contracts in Continental Law“). Why? As long as Britain was still a member of the EU, many German, Austrian and other continental European CEO’s were willing to accept English law as well as the jurisdiction of English courts. This was often a compromise reached in the negotiations between the contract lawyers of the U.S. and the German parties.
Those days are over. After Brexit, European Union law does no longer apply in Britain, which makes it pretty much unacceptable for the German (Austrian, French etc) side to accept English law as the governing law for the business relationship. Instead, the contract lawyers of businesses located in continental European countries insist more and more on their domestic substantive and procedural laws to apply. Therefore, United States law firms that work internationally will be increasingly confronted with cross-border civil and commercial litigation cases that take place in Germany or Austria.
Bootcamp for practicing U.S. attorneys and in-house lawyers
Our 2 day seminar “How to litigate in Germany” introduces United States trial lawyers to the very different world of German civil procedure. The focus is on making non-German litigators aware of the many differences compared to a U.S. civil lawsuit, thus enabling them to effectively collaborate with the German trial lawyers in an international U.S.-German civil case.
Experienced German litigator Bernhard Schmeilzl cuts right to the chase: No boring lectures on theoretical isues, but hands-on practical advice on how to win civil lawsuits in Germany. Including some tips and tricks on how to unnerve your adversary by “being American on purpose”, for example by naturally applying certain U.S. procedural tools and tactics which, normally, are not used in a German lawsuit (written witness statements or even video depositions). If smartly used, such an approach can somewhat unhinge the opponent.
Who is the workshop for?
United States lawyers who wish to advise their U.S. clients with business ties to Europe on the basics of how to litigate in Germany (and Austria). U.S. law firms that provide legal advice to German business clients in order to understand their German client’s expectations with regard to litigation and arbitration. United States lawyers who are dealing with international litigation and who strive to better understand the tactics and strategies in a German civil case. American legal scholars with an interest in the practical side of German civil litigation.
What does the workshop cover?
The key topics we explain and discuss in our German civil procedure workshops for United States litigators are:
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You want your day in German Court? Don’t get your hopes up too high!
When you read the relevant sections of the German Code of Civil Procedure (Zivilprozessordnung) one gets the impression that in a German civil case the parties will extensively lay out and discuss the case in front of the judge. Section 128 ZPO, which is headed “Principle of oral argument” states:
(1) The parties shall submit their arguments regarding the legal dispute to the court of decision orally.
More specifically, section 137 German Civil Procedure Code sets out the following :
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German Court Records: The Judge decides what goes on Record
How do you order a full transcript of a German court hearing? Well, that is a trick question in two respects. First, because German civil court records are not public. Second, because there are no such full transcripts of court hearings. In German civil cases, no verbatim records of hearings, witness statements or other judicial proceedings are being made. Thus, you will not find a U.S.-style court reporter or stenographer in a German civil courtroom.
What court hearing minutes are there?
German Civil Procedure Rules (Zivilprozessordnung) cover the issue of how official court hearing minutes shall be taken in sections 159 to 165. According to section 160a ZPO:
The content of the record of the hearing may be noted in a usual form of shorthand, by using comprehensible abbreviations, or by recording oral statements on a sound or data carrier.
This shows that, instead of a court stenographer taking a verbatim record, the judge dictates a summary of what the parties or the witnesses have stated to a court secretary (Justizsekretär or Justizfachangestellte). Sometimes, especially in lower courts, there is not even a court secretary, just the judge and his/her voice recorder.
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Translation costs in international litigation can exceed court and lawyer fees
In a legal dispute between an American or British business on the one side and a German business on the other side, the first things lawyers usually look at are jurisdiction, venue and applicable law. The party that finds itself having a “home game”, i.e. the party litigating at their local court, usually feels they have a strategic advantage. And indeed, if a lawsuit takes place in one’s own country and the applicable law is the law one’s own employees, inhouse counsels and go-to litigation lawyers already on retainer are familiar with, this makes matters easier.
However, there is one aspect which is often overlooked when international contracts are drafted. That’s the issue of procedural language, i.e. the simple question: What is the language of the civil court the parties have chosen? This post explains why the procedural language of the competent court is just as important as applicable law and jurisdiction itself.
Court language can be a huge cost factor
Let’s assume I represent a German company which manufactures high tech equipment and exports the same to the USA through a distributor in California. When the contract was negotiated a few years ago, my German client managed to get the US distributor to accept the jurisdiction of German state courts and German law to apply in case of a legal dispute between the parties. Sounds great, right? So, where is the problem for the German plaintiff?
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German Civil Court Case Files are not Public Records
U.S. lawyers do naturally assume that court files are public records and can be easily accessed and inspected by the public. Not so in Germany! As with, for instance, land registry information (see here), Germany is rather secretive when it comes to legal documents. Under German law, there is no general right to access court records in order to inspect and to copy the same. Instead, the written elements of a German civil lawsuit (lawyer’s statements, witness statements, expert opinions etc.) are considered to be a private and confidential matter, what is called “vertraulich” in German.
Are German court hearings open to the public?
Pursuant to section 169 German Courts Constitution Act, the court hearings themselves are in principle open to the public, except for family law cases, non-contentious probate proceedings and other sensitive matters. Audio and television recordings or transmissions during court hearings are, however, strictly prohibited in Germany. When you see TV coverage relating to a German trial (be it a civil trial or a criminal court), the footage you may see on TV is made before the judge opens the proceedings. Once the German court is in session, no recordings must be made and no pictures must be taken.
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Lawyer being a necessary witness is not grounds for disqualification under German CPR
Can a trial lawyer in a civil lawsuit act as a witness for his or her own client? At first glance, the whole idea of lawyer testimony in his or her own lawsuit goes against the grain of what seems the right allocation of roles and responsibilities in a civil lawsuit.
However, what if the party’s lawyer is the only person who can give testimony about a specific fact. Must the client then drop that trial lawyer in order to be able to call him or her as a witness? This post explains the differences in civil procedure rules of Germany, the USA and other common law jurisdictions with regard to the issue of advocates acting as witnesses in the same trial.
What is the situation for U.S. trial lawyers?
The American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rule 3.7 prohibits a U.S. lawyer to act as advocate at a trial in which that same lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness. There are some exceptions to that rule, but the principle stands. Most states in the USA have adopted identical or similar rules for trial lawyers. The idea behind this rule is that the jury shall not be confused or prejudiced by a lawyer being also called as witnesses during trial. As a rule, the roles of acting as an advocate for one party and at the same time being a witness shall not be combined.
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Short guide to contentious probate procedure under German law
German succession laws as well as probate procedure are very different from those of Common Law jurisdictions. This is mainly due to the fact that German inheritance law does not know a personal representative. Instead, all rights and obligations of the decedent are automatically transferred onto the heir (successor) or the community of heirs, if more than one. My separate blog Cross Channel Lawyers explains the details of German inheritance law, German non-contentious probate, contentious probate (i.e. the rules on how to challenge a will), as well as German gift tax law in dozens of posts (see here).
Non-contentious German Probate (Erbscheinverfahren)
If no one does challenge a will, the standard approach to obtaining German probate is the non-contentious probate procedure, the so called Erbscheinsverfahren (section 2353 German Civil Code). This non-contentious probate (more) takes place at the German Amtsgericht (Circuit Court) in the city or district where the decedent had his or her last place of residence. The rules of procedure for this standard, i.e. non-contentious probate, are those of the FamFG, which is short for “Gesetz über das Verfahren in Familiensachen und in den Angelegenheiten der freiwilligen Gerichtsbarkeit”, i.e. the German Act on Proceedings in Family Matters and in Matters of non-contentious Jurisdiction. More on the various German procedure rules in the post: German Statutes relating to Civil Litigation
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Pros and Cons of Settling a Civil or Commercial Lawsuit under German Law
German litigation lawyers as well as German judges love it when the parties of a civil dispute enter into a settlement agreement (called “Vergleichsvereinbarung” or simply ”Vergleich“). Why? Because German civil procedure rules and other laws concerning German civil litigation (see this post) provide financial incentives for lawyers if they find a way to resolve the dispute amicably, i.e. if the lawsuit is ended without the need for a judgment or other formal order by a German court.
With regard to the German judge, the motivation to promote a settlement is obvious: If the parties settle, the judge does not need to spend many working hours hearing witnesses, examining documents and writing a judgment.
German Law encourages Settlements
Section 278 German Code of Civil Procedure explicitly rules that the court shall at all stages of the civil lawsuit “work towards an amicable resolution of the dispute”. The original German wording of the relevant statute is:
„Das Gericht soll in jeder Lage des Verfahrens auf eine gütliche Beilegung des Rechtsstreits oder einzelner Streitpunkte bedacht sein.“
This means that a German judge in a civil litigation matter shall proactively attempt to induce the parties to reach such amicable resolution by way of a court recorded settlement agreement (gerichtlicher Vergleich); details are explained below.
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