1. Historical Background
In Japan, since the Middle Ages, the custom was not only for the firstborn legitimate son to inherit most of his parent’s estate, which was generally the case, but also for the eldest girl or youngest son to succeed to and maintain the family business, such as farm fields or business rights.
In the modern era, when an estate was considered as the sum of a person’s assets, the inheritance process was regarded as one of the division of an estate between a small range of close relatives, such as a person’s spouse and their children or parents. Therefore, the principle is that the sum of a person’s assets is distributed equally to the heirs of a certain rank.
As in France and Germany, the Japanese laws have definite rules on who will receive most of a deceased person’s estate, whether there is a will or none, but there is the freedom of making a will.
In addition, there is a system of legally secured portions for certain legal heirs in order to harmonise the legal inheritance rules and the freedom of making a will.
2. Legal heirs and the inheritance process under the Japanese law
In Japan, a deceased person’s legitimate surviving spouse will always be their heir, but will only be their sole heir if there are no legal heirs in the first, second or third ranks. Legal heirs in the first rank are the children, lineal ascendants (parents, grandparents, etc.) are in the second rank, and the deceased person’s legal siblings are in the third rank. Heirs of the second rank only inherit if there are no heirs of the first rank, those of the third rank only if there are none of the first two ranks.
If there are several people in the same rank, their portion will be divided equally among all those in the same rank. There is no legal distinction between a biological child or an adopted child or by gender, and even if they become married or adopted, they will still be heirs.
If a deceased person’s child dies before them, and if the child has a child (a grandchild for the deceased person), the grandchild is entitled to inherit and will have the same rank as a living child of the deceased person. Furthermore, if the grandchild also dies before the deceased person, and if the grandchild leaves their child (a great-grandchild for the deceased person), the great-grandchild will be one of the deceased person’s heirs. If the deceased child has several children, they share what would have been their parent’s share equally, and the same principle applies to the children of a deceased grandchild.
If there is no child at all, a deceased person’s lineal ascendant (parents, grandparents, etc.) as the second rank becomes the heir. Amongst lineal ascendants, the heirs will be close relatives (parents will be heirs if there are parents and grandparents). If there are biological parents and adoptive parents, both can be heirs as the same rank.
If there is no lineal ascendant, legal siblings become the heirs as the third rank. Legal siblings mean children who have shared at least one parent in common either by blood or adoption. However, if the legal siblings have shared only one parent in common, their share in the inheritance is one half of the share of a sibling who shares both parents. In addition, in this case, if the siblings who are supposed to be the deceased person’s heirs die before the deceased person, only their child (the deceased person’s nephew and niece) can succeed the third rank of heirs, and not the nephew’s or niece’s child.
If it is not clear who is a deceased person’s heir, the family court will conduct a legal procedure. Under this procedure, an executor for the succession who is appointed by a family court, and will search for the deceased person’s heirs under the family court’s supervision, and deal with matters of succession. If no heirs can be found, the deceased person’s estate may be distributed to those who have physically lived together with the deceased person, such as de facto partner or children, or the family court may consider special circumstances respectively. If there is still any remaining estate, it will become national assets.
An estate consists of various assets such as money, land, movables and loan claims, and the methods of division amongst their heirs is called the inheritance division. If the deceased person determines the method of this division by their will or entrusts their assets to a third party, the division will be followed by the method chosen. If there is no such determination, their joint heirs will decide the method. If no agreement amongst heirs is possible, a family court will be involved. The family court carries out the inheritance division in consideration of the type and nature of the estate, rights relating to the assets and any other circumstances.
To Be Continued.
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