In the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent the United States, an inter vivos gift, once given, cannot be reclaimed by the giver's heirs. In civil law countries the situation is quite different: Not only spouses, but issue and in some cases even ascendants, are entitled to a forced share of a decedent's estate--and these forced shares are assessed against a notional “estate” that includes the testator's inter vivos gifts. If the total of these forced shares exceeds the amount actually available in the decedent's estate at death, the recipients of the gifts, or their successors, may be forced to make up the missing amount.
Clawbacks of this nature might have remained relatively insignificant, but last year the European Union undertook, indirectly, to expand their reach dramatically. The EU proposal, in theory, addresses only conflict of law rules; in practice, if adopted, it will threaten not only existing trusts and charitable gifts in the US and UK, but may also reduce future philanthropic giving. The UK, to date, has opted out of the proposal, and the US is not directly affected; given the large number of US and UK citizens with assets in continental Europe, however, and vice versa, it remains a concern.
The recent European Union proposal to bring about a more uniform body of law governing choice-of-law and related issues in international inheritance cases is perhaps, a necessary response to the increasingly international nature of the EU's (and the world's) inhabitants and their assets. As written, though, it is rather heavily tilted toward the civil law values of continental Europe and threatens to collide jarringly with common law traditions, in particular the Anglo-American fondness for trusts and charitable giving. This article provides a look at these different traditions, and then examines the relevant inheritance law provisions of EU member states, the UK, and the US before looking at the proposal itself.
Aaron Schwabach, Of Charities and Clawbacks: The European Union Proposal on Successions and Wills as a Threat to Charitable Giving, 17 Colum. J. Eur. L. 447 (2011).