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The Court of Justice on the Succession Regulation: Carlos Santaló Goris on the E.E. Case

The EAPIL Blog hosts today two posts on the ruling of the Court of Justice in E.E., a case regarding the Succession Regulation decided on 16 July 2020. The first post, by Matthias Lehmann, appeared this morning. The second post, by Carlos Santaló Goris, a research fellow at the MPI Luxembourg and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Luxembourg, is featured below.


Introduction  

On 16 July 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) delivered its sixth judgment on Regulation No 650/2012 (the Succession Regulation): C-80/19, E. E.

The preliminary reference allowed the CJEU to address several questions about the
Succession Regulation’s rules on jurisdiction, applicable law, and recognition and enforcement. It also gave the CJEU the opportunity to clarify certain elements of the Succession Regulation: some of them new (such as the determination of the habitual residence), others already familiar to the Court (e.g. are notaries ‘courts’ for the purposes of the Succession Regulation?).

Facts of the Case and Questions Referred

E.E.’s mother – the deceased – was a Lithuanian national who, in 2013, got married to a German national and moved to Germany. The same year she made a will before a Lithuanian notary. In 2017, she passed away in Germany. E.E., also of Lithuanian nationality, requested a notary in Kaunas (Lithuania) to open the succession and issue a certificate of succession rights. The notary rejected the requests arguing the deceased was habitually resident in Germany: therefore, according to the jurisdictional rules of the Succession Regulation, it was up to German authorities to open the succession. E.E. challenged the notary’s refusal. The case ended up before the Supreme Court of Lithuania, which referred the following questions to the CJEU:

(1) Is a situation such as that in the case under examination — in which a Lithuanian national whose habitual place of residence on the day of her death was possibly in another Member State, but who in any event had never severed her links with her homeland, and who, inter alia, had drawn up, prior to her death, a will in Lithuania and left all of her assets to her heir, a Lithuanian national, and at the time of the opening of the succession it was established that the entire estate comprised immovable property located solely in Lithuania, and a national of that other Member State surviving his spouse expressed in clear terms his intention to waive all claims to the estate of the deceased, did not take part in the court proceedings brought in Lithuania, and consented to the jurisdiction of the Lithuanian courts and the application of Lithuanian law — to be regarded as a succession with cross-border implications within the meaning of [the Succession Regulation]?

(2) Is a Lithuanian notary who opens a succession case, issues a certificate of succession rights and carries out other actions necessary for the heir to assert his or her rights to be regarded as a ‘court’ within the meaning of Article 3(2) of [the Regulation]?

(3) If the second question is answered in the affirmative, are certificates of succession rights issued by Lithuanian notaries to be regarded as being decisions within the meaning of Article 3(1)(g) of [the Succession Regulation] and must jurisdiction for that reason be established for the purpose of issuing them?

(4) If the second question is answered in the negative, should the provisions of Articles 4 and 59 of [the Succession Regulation] be construed as meaning that Lithuanian notaries are entitled to issue certificates of succession rights without following general rules on jurisdiction and that such certificates will be held to be authentic instruments which also give rise to legal consequences in other Member States?

(5) Must Article 4 of [the Succession Regulation] (or other provisions thereof) be construed as meaning that the habitual place of residence of the deceased can be established in only one specific Member State?

Should the provisions of Articles 4, 5, 7 and 22 of [the Regulation] be construed and applied in such a way that, in the present case, in accordance with the facts as set out in the first question, it must be concluded that the parties concerned agreed that the courts in Lithuania should have jurisdiction and that Lithuanian law should be applied?

One or More Habitual Residence(s), and Where?

The CJEU addressed first whether a deceased may have more than one habitual residence for the purposes of the Succession Regulation. Indeed, in the case at hand, there were data suggesting that the habitual residence of the de cujus could have been located in two Member States: she had lived for a while in Germany when she passed away, but she held Lithuanian nationality and all her assets were in Lithuania. However, the CJEU made it clear that there can be only one habitual residence. A different answer would lead to a fragmented succession, something that the Succession Regulation aims at avoiding (para. 41).

Was the habitual residence of the deceased in Germany, or rather in Lithuania? The Regulation itself acknowledges that determining the place of habitual residence is not always easy. Some domestic courts have already struggled with this issue. The CJEU relies on the guidance offered by the Regulation’s Preamble, Recitals 23 and 24, inviting the referring court to consider both in order to establish the habitual residence of the deceased in the case at hand.

It is here submitted that by relying on the recitals, the CJEU has vested them with some kind of normative value. From now on, domestic authorities shall consider recitals 23 and 24 of the Succession Regulation when confronted with the need to determine the habitual residence of a deceased. Moreover, the Court’s reasoning indicates how to apply the recitals. First, the national authorities shall rely on Recital 23 to try and establish a close and stable connection with a Member State, taking into account both subjective factors (e.g., why the deceased lived in that Member State) and objective factors (e.g., how long the deceased spent in that Member State). Only if they fail can domestic authorities rely on Recital 24 and consider other data, such as the nationality or the location of the assets.

A Succession with Cross-border Implications?

The CJEU was asked as well whether the succession of E.E.’s mother qualified as one with cross-border implications. Indeed, as the CJEU recalls, the Succession Regulation only applies to such successions (paras. 34 – 35). However, there is no definition of what the European legislator meant by ‘cross-border implications.’ In this sense, the CJEU states: “it must be assessed whether the succession has a cross-border nature due to the location of another element of it in a State other than that of the deceased’s last habitual residence” (para. 42). But what are these other elements? In a non-exhaustive manner, the CJEU referred to the location of the deceased’s assets in a Member State other than the one of habitual residence of the deceased (para. 43). Therefore, in the present case, the succession of E.E.’s mother would fall under the scope of the Regulation if Germany prevails as “habitual residence”, for the estate assets (an apartment) are located in Lithuania.

By contrast, if ultimately (very unlikely, though) the national court prefers Lithuania as place of habitual residence, both the assets and habitual residence would be located in the same Member State. Would the succession be a purely internal one, then? The question arises whether other factors confer a cross-border dimension to a succession; the E.E. judgment is of little help here. Instead, one should look at the AG Opinion, where reference is made as well to the heirs’ habitual residence as a significant element to determine the succession’s cross-border implications (para. 65). In the present case, both potential heirs (E.E. and his stepfather) had their habitual residence in Germany. Therefore, should the deceased’s habitual residence be deemed to be Lithuania, the succession would still be one of interest for the Regulation.

Nothing New Concerning (Lithuanian) Notaries

The referring court also asks whether Lithuanian notaries are “courts” within the meaning of the Succession Regulation. A positive answer would have meant that they are subject to the Succession Regulation’s jurisdictional rules. The question is not new for the CJEU. In C-658/17, WB, a similar one had been referred concerning Polish notaries. The CJEU answered in the negative: the Polish notaries lack “judicial functions” (para. 61), i.e., “the power to rule of [their] own motion on possible points of contention between the parties concerned“(para. 55).

The CJEU applied the same logic in E.E. It appears from its reasoning that Lithuanian notaries in functions like the one deployed in the case at stake are not courts within the meaning of Article 3 of the Succession Regulation (para. 53). However, the CJEU does not say it so in so many words, but leaves it to the referring court to decide (para. 54).

Since the CJEU follows WB, the same critical remarks the judgment has met within scholarly circles will probably apply to E.E.. The CJEU did not fully elaborate on the notion of court, but simply referred to one of the characteristics mentioned in Article 3(2). Additionally, the notion of “jurisdictional functions” retained appears to be inconsistent with C-20/17, Oberle, where the CJEU ruled that the issuance of a domestic certificate of succession by a German court was subject to the Succession Regulation’s jurisdictional rules, in spite of the fact that the proceeding were not “judicial” in the sense of WB (and, now, E.E.). Several scholars have expressed their surprise that a certificate of succession rendered by a German court fall within the Succession Regulation’s jurisdictional scheme, but one rendered by a Lithuanian or a Polish notary does not.

One may wonder whether E.E. was actually a suitable occasion to work out a comprehensive notion of “court”. True, in E.E., the question was formulated in slightly broader terms than in WB. In the latter, the referring court asked whether a Polish notary issuing a certificate of succession is a ‘court’. Conversely, in the latter, the referring court asked whether a Lithuanian notary was a court when it “issues a certificate of succession rights and carries out other actions necessary for the heir to assert his or her rights.” This notwithstanding, it seems that Lithuanian and Polish notaries are quite similar. Thus, it is not surprising that the CJEU followed the same approach. There might be better occasions to address the issue again.

The Lithuanian Certificate of Succession: Judgment or Authentic Instrument?

The CJEU was also requested to determine whether a Lithuanian domestic certificate of succession was a judgment (if notaries are regarded as courts), or an authentic instrument (if notaries are not regarded as courts). The Court explored both possibilities:

Should the notaries be “courts” in the sense of the Regulation, they would be subject to its jurisdictional rules (para. 62), and the national certificate of succession would be a judgment within the meaning of Article (para. 63).

Conversely, if notaries are not ‘courts’, the certificate of succession would be an ‘authentic instrument,’ as long as it fulfils the characteristics imposed by the Succession Regulation on this type of instruments (paras. 72 – 73).

The CJEU’s outcome is hardly surprising considering that it had already explored this point in WB, on the Polish domestic certificate of succession.

The Parties’ Autonomy

In principle, under the Succession Regulation, the courts’ jurisdiction and the applicable law corresponds to the Member State of the deceased’s habitual residence. However, the Regulation grants a certain degree of autonomy to the deceased and to the heirs to opt for a different applicable law and another jurisdiction, respectively. This freedom is nonetheless limited: the deceased can only choose the law of the State his/her nationality (Article 22); the heirs can only opt for the courts of a Member State whose law had been chosen by the deceased (Article 5, Article 7). In E.E., the referring court was uncertain as to whether the deceased had actually opted for the law of her nationality, and the heirs for the jurisdiction of the Lithuanian courts.

Concerning the applicable law, E.E.’s mother had not expressly chosen the law of her nationality. Nonetheless, Article 83(4) of the Regulation creates a fiction according to which “if a disposition of property upon death was made prior to 17 August 2015 in accordance with the law which the deceased could have chosen in accordance with this Regulation, that law shall be deemed to have been chosen as the law applicable to the succession”. Since E.E.’s mother drew up her will before a Lithuanian notary in 2013 according to Lithuanian law, the fiction applies (para. 26) .

Lithuanian law being applicable, the referring court wondered if the potential heirs (E.E. and the deceased’s husband) had chosen the jurisdiction of Lithuanian courts. According to the Succession Regulation they could have done it through a choice-of-court agreement (Article 5); or through express declarations in which they accepted the jurisdiction of the court seized (Article 7). In the present case, unilateral declarations had been made by the deceased’s husband in Germany waiving any claim to the estate, consenting to the jurisdiction of the Lithuanian court and refusing to enter an appearance before it in the proceedings under way in that State. It is clear that these declarations do not amount to an Article 5 choice-of-agreement (para. 85); could they be an “express declaration” in the sense of Article 7? One more time, the CJEU leaves the question open, to be decided by the referring court. AG Campos Sánchez-Bordona went a step further, suggesting a flexible reading of the party’s autonomy. In his words, “it is appropriate to recall that the Regulation must not be read in such a way as to prevent parties from settling a succession out of court in a Member State which they have chosen, if that is possible under the law of that Member State” (para. 122).

Overall Assessment

E.E. will hardly be seen as a landmark case on the Succession Regulation. The main contribution/output of this judgment is the elaboration on an autonomous concept of “habitual residence”, based on the Preamble of the Regulation; and the characterization of Article 83(4) as a fiction, and not a presumption. Beyond that, the answer to the other questions is relatively basic, sometimes even disappointing . The CJEU either relies on what it had already said in previous cases without moving forward (e.g., Oberle; WB); or it paraphrases the text of the Succession Regulation. The referring court may find the AG’s Opinion more instructive than the judgment: something not unusual, and – even if not aimed at by the CJUE’s procedural and estructural rules- a good example of teamwork.

At any rate, E.E. remains an interesting case in that it reflects common difficulties faced by the domestic authorities when dealing with the Succession Regulation.

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