Germans and Their (Parent′s) Money | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 26.12.2004
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Germans and Their (Parent's) Money

Over the next 10 years, experts say a record amount of money and assets is going to change hands in Germany in the form of inheritance. But becoming an heir or heiress is rarely hassle-free.


So, who gets the holiday home in Mallorca?

All of €200 billion ($267 billion) in cash and assets are due to be passed down to a new generation of German heirs through family inheritance. Granted, nearly a quarter of that sum will land in the laps of those who are already wealthy in their own right.

But there will also be those for whom an inheritance is an unexpected windfall -- if things run smoothly, that is. Because even when the allocation of the deceased's assets has all been duly noted and authorized, inheriting still seems to bring a large share of in-fighting. Even more so when the deceased didn't specify exactly who gets what -- a situation that routinely crops up in Germany.

According to surveys, around 70 percent of Germans don't have a will -- something Jan Bittler, head of a German association focused on inheritance rights, attributes to a refusal to face up to the inevitable.

"It's often just the fear that comes with thinking about one's own death, combined with the attitude that what happens after we die doesn't concern us, as we won't be around anyway," Bittler said.

Katholische Beerdigung

In addition, German families tend not to discuss money matters when family elders are still alive. Once a parent dies though, arguments among siblings frequently flare up. Villas, expensive jewellery or bonds won't necessarily be at stake -- the typical German inheritance looks quite different, according to Bittler.

Emotional attachments

"In most cases, what we're talking about is the family home that took a long time to save for and a long time to pay off, plus a few other assets."

Family members often end up fighting about objects that have sentimental rather than material value. Who gets grandma's floral-patterned china that was a regular fixture at Sunday dinners? Who gets the living room clock that always ticked in such a reassuringly steady fashion? And who gets the piano that all the children always pounded on so gleefully?

Other times, said Bittler, it's simply dividing up the assets that gives way to sour grapes.

"If someone is given property worth €200,000, and someone else is given property worth €400,000, the question arises whether the person who got the higher value property has to even things out by paying back €100,000. That's the typical sort of situation that ends up before a court."

Complicated family structures

Complicating matters even further is the fact that family structures are becoming more intricate in Germany. Marriages often don't last a lifetime anymore. Divorced couples start new families with new partners, and these new "patchwork families" are having a profound effect on the laws regulating inheritance.


Not forever anymore

"You have to be careful that all of the children descended from the deceased get their share of the inheritance," Bittler said. "That includes children from the first marriage and children from previous non-marital relationships. They are all then included in the inheritance community with, for example, the second wife. Whether that makes much emotional sense is doubtful."

Bittler advises those who want to spare their families this added grief to consider in good time how their possessions should be divided up -- and not to wait until age 85 to do so.

A will made in younger years could, for example, spare the 35-year-old widow an unpleasant fight with her in-laws over the house she shared with her husband. The so-called "last will and testament" is never written in stone anyway, since here people may alter their wills as often as they like.

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