We talk you through what to do if you are the closest relative of someone who has died in France and need to take care of the legal formalities and funeral arrangements.
If you are reading this, you have our sympathies, as you are in the unenviable position of having to deal with the death of someone close to you in a foreign country where you are unfamiliar with the rules, regulations and customs. This article talks about the process in France from the immediate aftermath of death to dealing with the deceased’s estate.
The First 24 Hours After Death
Certifying a natural death
If the death is at home, contact a doctor and ask them to come and certify the death. If the death is in a hospital or other medical establishment, the staff will take care of the certification. In certain cases you can ask to see the deceased’s medical records.
If there are any unusual circumstances (accident, suicide etc) the police/gendarmes must be contacted. Find your nearest police station on this government website and ring them directly, or ring 17 or 112 if it is an emergency.
Respect the deceased’s wishes
If you don’t know already, you are required to check to see if the deceased had expressed any wishes as to whether they wanted their body to be buried, cremated or donated to medical science and any wishes with regards to organ donation. Please note that in France, the law states that everyone is presumed to be an organ donor unless they have registered the fact that they do not want to be, so if they die in hospital and their organs can be used they probably will be. There is more information in our article on the subject.
If you need to organise a funeral, you must contact an undertaker, known as a pompe funèbres in French. If the death is in the Pyrénées Orientales Maison Guizard speak English and are used to helping the British community (disclaimer – they advertise with this website). Whichever company you use, make sure that you get a written quotation for the costs before signing a contract and visit more than one if you want to compare quotes.
Declaring the death
You have to declare the death at the town hall (mairie) of the commune where the death took place within 24 hours. If the death was in a hospital or retirement home etc. the staff may do this for you, alternatively the funeral home which is organising the funeral may also do it for you. You will need proof of identity for you and the deceased and the marriage or birth certificate of the deceased, their address, next of kin and maiden name (if relevant).
Once they have received the declaration the mairie will prepare a death certificate and send the information to INSEE which will use the RNIPP (national register for the identification of physical persons) to inform the relevant pension bodies. They will also issue a “permis d’inhumer” or “certificat d’incinération” depending on whether the deceased is to be buried or cremated.
Within 6 Days: the Funeral
Funerals in France must take place within 6 working days of death, unless there are exceptional circumstances. You will need to specify the details: whether it is to be a cremation or burial, how the body will be transported, what ceremony will take place…
Hopefully there won’t be, but if there is any disagreement between you and the other relatives, you can ask for a judgement by the tribunal d’instance (district court) under whose jurisdiction the place of death comes, which will rule within 24 hours. You can find the relevant court here.
Talk to the funeral parlour/undertaker about what you want for the funeral and they should arrange it all and sort out any necessary paperwork.
The average cost of a funeral in France is between €3000 and €5000. You can ask for the costs of the funeral to be paid from the bank account of the deceased up to a limit of €5000, if the funds in the account allow it. If there aren’t enough funds then the deceased’s children or grand-children or failing that his/her parents or grandparents will have to pay. If the deceased had no living relatives, the mairie will arrange for the body to be buried and either take the funds from the estate or pay for it from the town hall’s budget.
The funeral director will hold the person who placed the order liable for the bill, but that person can then ask other relatives to contribute, and they are obliged to as long as they have enough resources and the expenses are not excessive (e.g. a costly headstone or monument). If anybody refuses to pay, they can be taken to the family court. More information on service-public.fr
Employees and public servants are entitled to condolence leave. This is 3 days for a spouse, civil partner or live-in partner (concubin), parent, parent-in-law or sibling and 5 days for a child. If your post is governed by a union or collective agreement you may be entitled to more and/or to leave for other relatives.
What to do with the ashes
It is illegal to keep ashes in your home in France, except for a brief period when you are waiting to scatter/bury them and there are strict rules about what you can do with them:
Disposal outside a cemetery
- You may scatter ashes in the middle of nature, defined as forests and woods, mountains, but not gardens or parks whether public or private, fields and cultivated spaces, public highways, water currents and streams. This can only take place after receiving permission from the mayor of the commune of birth and the mayor of the commune where the ashes are to be scattered. A register will be kept of the name of the deceased and the place and date of scattering. The family of the deceased must have access to the place where the ashes were scattered in perpetuity. The mayor will also fix the date of the ceremony.
- For dispersal at sea the ashes must be scattered at least 300m from the coast. If an urn is to be thrown into the water, this distance is increased to 6km and the urn must be biodegradable. The mayors of both communes must be involved as per above.
- Scattering in the air – there is no particular legislation about this, but it must be done over a natural space as defined above with no public roads.
- Burial on private property is authorised rarely and then only under very strict conditions.
- Repatriation – if you wish to repatriate ashes, you need to get permission from the prefect’s office, have the ashes sealed in an urn, and take the death certificate and certificate of cremation with you. You should also inform your airline and find out whether you are supposed to carry the urn with you in the cabin or check it in. See the UK government website for more information.
Disposal inside a cemetery
- Places for scattering ashes or placing urns are provided free of charge within the cemetery that carried out the cremation. A “jardin des souvenir” is a space dedicated to scattering ashes, whereas a “jardin des tombes cinéraires/funéraires” offers a cyclindrical hole in the ground 20cm in diameter x 35cm long in which to leave the urn with the ashes in it.
- The urn can also be enclosed in a columbarium or in a tomb for a fee.
Most French people are not buried in the English sense – they are enclosed in a family tomb. If you wish to take this option, the undertaker will discuss the purchase of a plot and the tomb with you.
Repatriation of the body
This needs to be organised through an undertaker who can help with the paperwork. The law sets out that the body must be embalmed, then it has to be placed in a hermetically sealed metal box which has been cold-soldered shut. Certain airlines insist that this metal coffin is in a wooden case. You will also need the death certificate translated into English, a permit to seal the coffin and remove the body, an “avis de non-contagion” (that the deceased did not have an infectious disease) from a doctor, and a “certificat de non épidémie” from the Agence Régionale de Santé.
Once back in the UK there are other formalities that need to be carried out. These are explained on the UK government site.
As Early as Possible and at Least Within the First Month
Ask for a copy of the death certificate: you can get a copy from the mairie of the commune in which they died, or at the one in which they lived, or you can fill in the online form. Copies are free and available to anyone who asks for them.
If the deceased and yourself had children of French nationality, you will need to get their “livret de famille” updated.
If the deceased was subject to French inheritance law then you have various obligations to fulfill. A notaire can help you with all of these.
Prove that you are an heir
In France the deceased’s heirs have to sort out the estate. In order to carry out certain formalities like using the deceased’s bank account to pay outstanding bills, you need to assert your rights as an heir. There are two ways to do this depending on the size of the estate, but both are explained in French here:
- if it is less than or equal to €5000, all of the heirs can sign a statement.
- if it is greater than €5000, you have to see a notaire to get an affidavit signed.
Sort through the deceased’s paperwork
You need to go through the deceased’s paperwork and keep anything that is still within the legal limit for conservation. Make a note of anything pertaining to debts, obligations or money owing to the deceased.
If the deceased had children that are still minors, you will have to go to the juge de tutelles du tribunal de grande instance (judge who rules on guardianship) who will insure that their inheritance is protected.
You can ask a bailiff to prepare an inventory of the deceased’s movable assets or to install seals if you are worried that they will be taken before the estate has been dealt with.
Don’t forget to look into any pension rights that you may have as the widow/er of the deceased.
Also ask the health insurance body to repay any medical expenses and see if there is a life insurance payment (épargne salariale) due if the deceased worked for a private company.
If they were employed, contact the employer to see if there was a savings policy (épargne salariale) that can be added to the estate. If they were signing on, you should contact the Pôle Emploi about this.
Banks & Insurance
Tell the banks so that they can freeze the deceased’s accounts. You can try checking the register of bank accounts (Ficoba) to make sure that you don’t miss any.
Get in touch with Agira (the association for the management of information about insurance risks) who will check and see if there were any life insurance (assurance-décès) or life savings policies (assurance-vie)
Get in touch with the companies for house, car etc insurance to cancel the policies.
Cancel all outstanding contracts for phone, water, electricity etc. and let anybody else who worked for them know.
Inform the landlord if the deceased was renting. Contact any tenants if they were a landlord so that they know where to pay the rent as the normal bank account will be frozen.
In the First 6 Months: Sort Out the Estate
You need to contact a notaire who will check to see if there is a will registered and then proceed to share out the estate according to French inheritance law, although as noted above, if minors are involved then the guardianship judge will have to be involved before doing anything else.
Once the estate has been settled, if you have inherited anything, you need to
- make a declaration of inheritance (déclaration de succession) so that you can be assessed for inheritance tax.
- pay any inheritance tax which is due immediately but can be delayed under certain conditions.
French inheritance tax is paid by each heir rather than out of the estate and the amounts that you can inherit and the amount payable varies according to the closeness of your relationship to the deceased. This article explains a bit more about the inheritance tax laws.