On 9 September 2021, the Court of Justice handed down its judgment in UM (C‑277/20), in which, for the first time, it sheds light on doubts concerning the applicability of the EU Succession Regulation to donations mortis causa. The preliminary questions originate from the Austrian Supreme Court (Oberster Gerichtshof). In the judgment, the Court of Justice shared the view presented earlier this year in the opinion delivered by Advocate General de la Tour. This post is a slightly modified version of an Op-Ed published on EU Law Life.
Facts of the Case
ZL, a German national, had entered into a contract with his son UM and UM’s wife XU in 1975. Under the contract, where Austrian law was chosen as applicable, it was provided inter alia that ZL undertakes to erect a house on his immovable property located in Austria which would transfer mortis causa to XU and UM in equal shares. The transfer would occur on the death of ZL, but not before the house has been completed. If UM and XU were to divorce, the transfer mortis causa would be construed as having been made to UM alone. ZL expressly declared that the immovable property was to be transferred as a donation mortis causa. ZL authorised the transfer of ownership to be recorded in the Austrian Land Register upon production of a death certificate and proof that the conditions listed in the contract were fulfilled. Prior to the death of ZL in 2018, UM and his wife had divorced, and she had subsequently died.
Succession proceedings were commenced in Germany, the place of ZL’s habitual residence. For the purposes of those proceedings, UM applied to the court in Austria to be registered as the owner of the immovable property in question. Before the case reached the Austrian Supreme Court, the courts of two instances took the view that Austrian law is applicable and, therefore, in the absence of proof of satisfaction of the conditions laid down in the contract, rejected UM’s application. The Austrian Supreme Court decided to submit a preliminary request to the Court of Justice to clarify whether the donation mortis causa might be classified as an agreement as to succession covered by the material scope of the Succession Regulation and, in the affirmative, whether the choice of Austrian law as applicable remains valid.
Donation Mortis Causa as an Agreement as to Succession
To understand the first question posed to the Court of Justice, it is important to recall that pursuant to Article 3(1)(a) of the Succession Regulation, “succession” is defined as “succession to the estate of a deceased person”. It covers “all forms of transfer of assets, rights and obligations by reason of death”. This transfer may be “through intestate succession” or “under a disposition of property upon death”. At the same time, a disposition of property upon death means, inter alia, an “agreement as to succession” (Article 3(1)(d)), which is “an agreement … which, with or without consideration, creates, modifies or terminates rights to the future estate or estates of one or more persons party to the agreement” (Article 3(1)(b)).
Having the above in mind, the Court of Justice noted that the notion of an agreement as to succession must be given an autonomous interpretation (para. 29) and that it “refers generally to any agreement which, inter alia, creates rights to the future” estate (para. 30). The Court of Justice further cited the definition of succession provided for in Article 3(1)(a) of the Succession Regulation to conclude that “a contract under which a person provides for the future transfer, on death, of ownership of immovable property belonging to him or her and which confers rights in his or her future estate on other parties to that contract, constitutes an “agreement as to succession” within the meaning of Article 3(1)(b)” of the Regulation (para. 32). Referring to its previous judgment in Oberle (C-20/17), the Court of Justice stated that its conclusion is supported by the principle of unity of the succession (para. 33).
The Court also recalled that Article 1(2)(g) of the Succession Regulation excludes from its scope assets transferred otherwise than by succession, for example gifts, but it noted that this exclusion should be interpreted strictly (para. 34). As a result, where “a disposition of property contained in an agreement relating to a succession consists (…) in a donation, but does not take effect until the death of the deceased”, it is covered by the scope of the Regulation (para. 35).
When it comes to the differentiation between donations inter vivos and mortis causa, the opinion is more elaborate than the judgement. It even refers to Article 1(2)(d) of the 1989 HCCH Succession Convention and its explanatory reportunderlying that even though the Convention never entered into force it inspired many provisions of the Regulations (para. 38 of the opinion). As a result, it plays an important role while interpreting the Regulation itself. The report states that the notion of “disposition of property upon death” excludes inter vivos dispositions having immediate proprietary effect. When it comes to disposition of property upon death “it is upon the death of the person so disposing, and not in any respect at any earlier time, that the disposition (or transfer) takes place” (para. 41 of the explanatory report).
The opinion indicates also that Article 1(2)(g) of the Succession Regulation should be read together with recital 14 thereof, which explains that the law applicable to the succession “determines whether gifts or other forms of dispositions inter vivos giving rise to a right in rem prior to death should be restored or accounted for the purposes of determining the shares of the beneficiaries” (para. 36 of the opinion). This suggests that donations excluded from the scope of the Regulation are only those that might be classified within a broader term of “dispositions inter vivos giving rise to a right in rem prior to death”. A contrario, dispositions giving rise to a right in rem after the death are not covered by the exclusion provided for in Article 1(2)(g) of the Succession Regulation. The Court of Justice seems to share this view but does not justify it in such detailed manner as the opinion.
Given the above, the Court of Justice concluded that “a contract under which a person provides for the future transfer, on death, of ownership of immovable property belonging to him or her to other parties to the contract is an agreement as to succession” within the meaning of the Succession Regulation. As a result, the agreement at hand should be covered by the material scope of the Succession Regulation.
Choice of the Applicable Law to the Donation Mortis Causa
Knowing that, the second question that the Court of Justice had to answer was whether it is possible to choose the law applicable to the succession of an asset indicated in the donation mortis causa, as in the contract at hand the Austrian law was chosen as applicable.
It must be noted that, in accordance with the Succession Regulation, the law applicable to succession is the law of the last habitual residence of the deceased (Article 21(1)), subject to the operation of the escape clause (Article 21(2)) unless the deceased has chosen the law applicable in the disposition of property upon death in accordance with Article 22. The Regulation contains also transitional provisions, as according to Article 84 thereof its rules apply from 17 August 2015 (Article 84) but only to the succession of persons who died from that date onwards.
Pursuant to Article 83(2) of the Regulation, where the deceased had chosen the law applicable to his succession prior to 17 August 2015, that choice remains valid if it meets the conditions laid down in the Regulation itself or in the rules of private international law which were in force, at the time the choice was made, in the state of either the “habitual residence” or (one of) “nationality” of the deceased. That is the expression of favor validitatis principle, which aims to prevent the choice of applicable law to succession made in the past from becoming invalid due to the change in law, namely, replacement of domestic international succession rules by the Succession Regulation.
The doubt before the Court of Justice was whether Article 83(2) of the Succession Regulation may apply to the choice of the applicable law (namely, Austrian law) contained in the donation mortis causa contract signed in 1975. The answer was negative. The Court of Justice held that Article 83(2) concerns only “the validity of the choice of law applicable to the succession as a whole”, whereas (it seems that) “the choice of Austrian law concerned only the agreement as to succession concluded by the deceased in the main proceedings in respect of one of his assets and not the succession as a whole, with the result that the condition for applying Article 83(2) of that regulation cannot be considered satisfied in such circumstances (para. 39)”.
This seems a reasonable conclusion, provided that the Succession Regulation is built on the unitary principle, meaning that one single law governs succession. This principle applies functionally, meaning that one single law governs succession “from the opening of the succession to the transfer of ownership of the assets forming part of the estate to the beneficiaries” (recital 42 of the Regulation) and territorially, meaning that one single law governs succession “irrespective of the nature of the assets and regardless of whether the assets are located in another Member State or in a third State” (recital 37).
Additionally, it might be added that the choice of applicable law with respect to agreements as to succession (Article 25) relates only to the question of their admissibility, substantive validity, and their binding effects between the parties, including the conditions for their dissolution. This should not be equated with the choice of law applicable to succession as a whole (which governs succession in general, for example, the question of liability for debts – Article 23(2)(g)).
To conclude, it was rightly confirmed in the UM judgment that, in accordance with the Succession Regulation, a donation mortis causa giving rise to a right in rem after the death of the donor constitutes an agreement as to succession within the meaning of this regulation. Additionally, in general, in a succession case there might be more than one disposition of property upon death, including agreements as to succession providing for donations mortis causa of particular assets, but there can only be one single law applicable to succession as a whole, which governs “all civil-law aspects of succession to the estate of a deceased person” with respect to all the assets of the deceased.