Family New circumstances? Think about your documents

Life is full of surprises. Ensure that your inheritance documents are up to date.

28 Jul 2021
New circumstances? Remember to update documents like your will, inheritance contract and marital agreement accordingly.

We never know what life has in store for us. From joyful events to painful losses, life is constantly confronting us with new situations. This includes our own death, even if this is something we prefer not to think about. Swiss inheritance law stipulates a certain order of inheritance, but does this suit your personal situation? Do you want to name others as heirs apart from your spouse or children?

Start your inheritance planning early. This will ensure that your assets are passed on according to your wishes, while also preventing any ill will among your heirs. You should also ensure you keep it up to date so that your inheritance documents reflect your circumstances.

What if there is no will naming beneficiaries?

In the event that no other probate documents exist, Swiss inheritance law provides for a certain inheritance with legally prescribed quotas and statutory entitlements.

  • The spouse (or partner in the case of registered couples) receives half of the inheritance if it is shared with immediate offspring (own children or grandchildren).
  • The spouse receives three quarters of the estate if it is shared with parents or their offspring (siblings, nephews or nieces of the deceased).
  • If immediate offspring, parents or their offspring are no longer alive, the spouse inherits everything.
  • If there are no relatives or they cannot be traced, the estate passes to the state.

If you want to pass on your estate in accordance with Swiss inheritance law, you do not need to do anything. If you want to pass on some of your estate to other persons or institutions in addition to your family, or you want to allocate the inheritance differently, you will need to draw up a will or an inheritance contract.

Different inheritance solutions for different needs

The document you choose depends on your personal situation. You can draw up a will or an inheritance contract. The main features of both documents at a glance:

Wills

  • Drawn up by the testator alone
  • Must not infringe the statutory entitlements of each party
  • Otherwise allows a free choice of additional beneficiaries, such as friends or foundations
  • Can be revoked or modified by the testator at any time
  • Must be handwritten, dated and signed by the testator
  • It is important that the testator formulate their wishes clearly in order to prevent misunderstandings
  • To ensure the will can be found after you die, it can be stored, for example, at a bank or in the relevant cantonal depository

Inheritance contracts

  • Is a contract between the testator and one or more inheritance parties, e.g., spouse and/or children
  • Allows for the estate to be divided up individually, independently of statutory entitlements (waiving of inheritance or compulsory share)
  • Requires the consent of all of the parties to the contract
  • Particularly advisable if you want to agree on binding rules with your heirs (e.g., children agree to waive their statutory entitlement if one spouse dies in order to favor the surviving spouse)
  • The marital agreement can be subsequently modified or revoked, provided all of the parties to the contract are involved
  • Must be signed by everyone involved before a notary and in the presence of two independent witnesses (public authentication)

You can find further information on wills and inheritance contracts in our article “Transmission of assets: make plans early onˮ.

For married couples a marital agreement is another means of succession planning in addition to wills and inheritance contracts. This is because matrimonial property law takes precedence over inheritance law. If one spouse dies, assets are divided up according to the matrimonial property regime. This determines what part of the marital assets are passed on to the surviving partner and what part goes to the deceased’s estate.

In the absence of a marital agreement, the regime of “community of acquired property” automatically applies in Switzerland. This means that the assets jointly acquired by the couple since they got married are split equally between them. A marital agreement allows this 50/50 split to be changed or for a different property regime to be agreed, e.g., separation of estates. To learn how you can ensure your spouse inherits more, read our article “How to increase the spouse’s share of inheritance”.

Wills and inheritance contracts are valid until revoked

Drawing up inheritance documents is not difficult if the points described are adhered to. However, many people forget that properly drawn up and certificated wills or inheritance contracts are valid until revoked. This means that your inheritance documents will not be automatically adjusted if your circumstances change.

Both a will and an inheritance contract can be modified at any time or even revoked, for example, if you remarry. However, modifying inheritance documents is often forgotten about when a person first finds themselves in new circumstances.

What happens if inheritance documents are not updated?

Inheritance documents should always be updated if there is a significant change in your life circumstances. If not, children from a second marriage may receive nothing because only the children from the first marriage are named in the will.

The following checklist is a guide on the parameters that affect inheritance:

  • A change in circumstances due to marriage, cohabitation, divorce, births or deaths
  • Changes to your assets due to a change of jobs, an inheritance or advance inheritance, gifts or lottery winnings or acquiring property
  • Starting your own business or ending self-employment; the founding, purchase or sale of a business
  • New rules due to changes to legislation or amendments to regulations
  • Residence in your home country or abroad or your living situation
  • Existing inheritance arrangements no longer make sense, for example, if a married couple does not have children, one or more of the designated heirs dies, or if there are conflicts within the family

Find out why it is important to keep inheritance documents like marital agreements and contracts of inheritance up to date by reading the specific example in our article “We’ve settled everything, right?”.

The situation is especially tricky for patchwork families and cohabiting couples

As with all other financial questions, it’s worth discussing them regularly with your partner. This applies particularly for couples who are cohabiting or who live in a patchwork family. Here, proactive inheritance planning is both essential and challenging. This is because the law does not provide for cohabiting partners to inherit, i.e., they are not legal heirs. Unless an inheritance is defined in advance, they are not entitled to a share of their partner’s estate. They need to make all of their inheritance arrangements themselves, either with an inheritance contract or a will. If they do not, they may face unpleasant surprises and problems.

Whether you live alone, with your spouse or unmarried partner, or as the head of a family, it is worth planning your inheritance while you are still alive. We can help you do so.

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