Inheritances for single people
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Inheritances without Heirs: What Single People Need to Know

What happens if an unmarried person dies without having made inheritance arrangements? It was a situation Sonja Keller had to face when her partner died. Left on her own, she took the initiative and realized how much freedom she had for inheritance planning.

Four years ago, Sonja Keller, 52, turned a long-cherished dream into reality: she opened her own café. A lot of friends helped her in the early days, most of all her partner Felix, an advertising photographer. Just six months after the opening, Felix was fatally injured in a hiking accident. Today Sonja says it was the café that helped her the most at that time – it was a job that had to be done, but she also met many warm-hearted people in her daily work.

Felix Had Not Anticipated His Death

Sonja and Felix had been a couple for five years when he died. Marriage was never on the agenda for either of them. They had lived together in a large apartment and Sonja now needed to deal with the matter of Felix's estate. He lived his life completely in the present. His career as a photographer was also his passion. He went on a major trip at least once a year. He was never preoccupied with death – and had not planned for this eventuality, which he probably anticipated would not happen for a long time yet.

Two Distant Cousins Stand to Inherit Everything

Felix had no children or siblings, and his parents were no longer alive. There are therefore no heirs in the immediate family. However, there are two cousins on his father's side in Brazil. Felix met these family members once, during a trip around 20 years ago. These two men in Brazil are now set to inherit all of Felix's assets. As Felix and Sonja had been cohabiting, she is entitled to nothing, as the law does not allow cohabiting partners any mutual claims to an inheritance.

The Legal Devolution of an Estate in Switzerland

Parentelic order under Swiss inheritance law

Source: Wealth Planning, Credit Suisse

Swiss inheritance law is split into three parentela:

First parentela

Foremost in the devolution of the estate is the spouse (or registered partner) and the testator's children. All the children are entitled to inherit in equal parts, whether they're from a previous marriage, born out of wedlock, or from a current relationship.

Second parentela

If there is neither a spouse nor children, the heir moves one rung higher up the family tree i.e. to the parents of the testator. If they are already deceased, other children of the parents are considered, i.e. the siblings of the deceased, and, in a further step, their descendants.

Third parentela

If there are no heirs in the second parentela, the heir moves a further level up to the grandparents, and, if they are deceased, their descendants.

How Could Felix Have Planned His Estate?

What options would Felix have had before his death to change the legal succession through a will? Certain groups of people are protected in law through compulsory portions.

Those entitled to compulsory portions are:

  • the spouse or registered partner,
  • the descendants, and
  • the parents.

Felix is not restricted in the devolution of the estate by the compulsory portions because he was not married, had no children, and his parents were already deceased.

The Freely Available Share

In Felix's case, this would therefore have been 100 percent. He would have been able to dispose of all of his assets without restriction.
Sonja does not fret about losing the inheritance. It is not in her nature. The unexpected inheritance has given the cousins in Brazil new opportunities. Sonja is relieved, however, that the heirs have given up their claims to the household contents and the personal effects of their late cousin – and gifted them to her.

Be Proactive – Get Advice

Nevertheless, the death of her partner poses a host of questions for Sonja: When she dies, what will happen to the things she loves and to her assets? Would everything go to the state? What are the alternatives? She feels an urgent need to get on with her inheritance planning and put her own affairs in order. In an inheritance consulting meeting, she finds answers to her questions.

Legacy, Estate, Inheritance: What Are the Differences?

The difference between a legacy and an inheritance is an important one and must therefore be set out in the will. This is especially important for single people who can distribute their assets freely.

  • The terms legacy and bequest are used interchangeably and refer to cash amounts or valuables left as part of a will.
  • A person who receives a legacy or bequest is not an heir. This means that this person does not assume the liabilities associated with an inheritance – they are not liable for debts of the testator, for example.

Donations to Charitable Organizations

It is a particularly attractive option for single people to donate some or all of their assets to philanthropic causes. When specifying allocations in the will, it must be ensured that the instructions are clearly formulated; in particular, it must be clearly stated which institutions will benefit and what share they will receive. Otherwise there is a risk that a will could be deemed invalid.

Sonja Keller is an only child. There are no heirs in the second or third parentela either. If she had failed to make any preparations, her entire estate would have been split between the canton and her home municipality. She has now set up various legacies in her will, and also appointed a foundation as her sole heir. After Sonja's death, this foundation will receive the majority of her assets. The foundation supports a project for disadvantaged and suffering children in Brazilian favelas. Sonja is happy as she feels she may be acting in accordance with Felix's wishes, as one year before his death he created an impressive photographic record of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

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