Bequeathing for single people

Bequeathing without heirs: What single people need to know

What happens if an unmarried person dies without having made any testamentary provisions? Sonja Keller found out the hard way upon the death of her partner. As a single person herself, she subsequently took the initiative and realized how much freedom she had in estate planning.

Four years ago, Sonja Keller, age 52, fulfilled a long-time dream: She opened her own café. Many friends helped her in the early days, most of all her partner Felix, an advertising photographer. Only six months after the opening, Felix was fatally injured while hiking. Today, Sonja Keller says the café is what helped her most at the time – a task that couldn't be put off – but also the many kind, warm-hearted people she met daily at work.

Death was not part of the plan for Felix

Sonja and Felix had been a couple for five years when he died. They had never thought about getting married. They had lived together in a large flat, and now Sonja had to deal with Felix's estate. He had lived entirely in the present. His profession as a photographer was also his passion, and he went on an extended trip at least once a year. He hadn’t thought about his own death and accordingly didn’t plan anything for this event, which he was probably not expecting to happen for a long time.

The beneficiaries under legal succession are two distant cousins of Felix

Felix had no children, no siblings, and his parents are also deceased. Thus, there are no heirs among his close relatives. However, there are two cousins on the father’s side in Brazil. Felix had met this family once, on a trip about 20 years ago. These two men in Brazil would now inherit all of Felix's assets. Since Felix and Sonja were cohabiting partners, she was not entitled to anything, because the law does not provide for mutual inheritance claims for cohabiting partners.

Legal succession in Switzerland

Parentela order under Swiss inheritance law

Legal succession is divided into three parentelas. The right to inherit starts at the first parentela and passes on to the next one if there are no heirs.
Source: Wealth Planning, Credit Suisse

Swiss inheritance law is divided into three parentelas:

First parentela

The spouse (or registered partner) and the children of the testator are the first in the order of succession. The children are all equally entitled to an inheritance, whether they are from a previous marriage, born out of wedlock, or from a current relationship.

Second parentela

If there are no children or spouse, the inheritance goes up a level in the family tree to the parents of the testator. If they are already deceased, other children of the parents are taken into account, i.e. the siblings of the deceased and, in a next step, their descendants.

Third parentela

If there are no heirs in the second parentela, the inheritance goes up one more level to the grandparents and, if they are deceased, to their descendants.

How could Felix have planned his estate?

Felix could have freely arranged the devolution of his estate before his death by means of a will or an inheritance contract. This is because only certain groups of people are entitled to so-called compulsory portions, which are protected by law.

The following people are entitled to a compulsory portion:

  • Spouse or registered partner
  • Descendants

There would have been no restrictions due to compulsory portions in the devolution of Felix's estate because he was not married and had no descendants. The divisible portion in Felix's case was therefore 100%. He could have disposed of all his assets without any restrictions. In other words, Felix could have excluded his cousins from the right to inherit by means of a will or an inheritance contract.

Sonja is not bitter about the lost inheritance. That is not in her nature. The unexpected inheritance has opened up new opportunities for the cousins in Brazil. Sonja is relieved, however, that the heirs waived the right to the household and personal effects of their deceased cousin and gifted them to her instead.

Make arrangements for your estate at an early stage

Nonetheless, the death of her life partner raised a number of questions for Sonja Keller: What would happen upon her own death to the things she loves and her assets? Would everything go to the state? What are the alternatives? She felt an urgent desire to take charge of her own inheritance planning and put her affairs in order. She found the answers to her questions during an inheritance consultation.

Who inherits if I'm single and have no legal heirs?

Sonja Keller is an only child. There are also no heirs in the second and third parentelas. Without the provisions she made, her entire wealth would have been shared between the canton and the municipality of residence at the time of her death. She has now defined various testamentary legacies and appointed a foundation as her sole heir.

After Sonja's death, most of her assets will go to this foundation. The foundation supports a project for needy and suffering children in Brazil's favelas. It makes Sonja happy to think that she's carrying on something that was important to Felix, who produced an impressive photo documentary about the favelas in Rio de Janeiro a year before his death.