If a survey was prepared, I can imagine at least half of us would admit to at least once in our life having a dream of getting a call to inform us that our distant aunt we never met died and named us in her will. Would it not be nice… Well, not necessarily if your aunt was Polish….
In England, before inheritance is paid out, the executors named in the will need to make an application for formal court’s authority authorising them to act in the matters of the estate (Grant of Probate). The executors will pay all the testamentary debts and expenses (taxes, court fees and any debts that the deceased had) and will distribute the rest of what is left in accordance with the terms of the will. If there is no will, the same job and obligations will fall onto the spouse of the deceased children and so in, in order specifically prescribed by the statute. If the assets in the estate of the deceased are not enough to pay all the debts and expenses, the executors will pay what they can to the best of their abilities. The rest will in practice be considered bad debt which cannot be paid by the estate. The beneficiaries expecting their inheritance will be left with nothing, but other than their lost dreams of becoming wealthier, they will lose nothing else.
Matters are much different when you stand to inherit from Poland. Under Polish law, one is called to inherit a share of the estate, not specific gifts. However, with the share of that estate one will be called to inherit also the debts which the deceased may have had. All is well, when the estate is much bigger than the debts. Each beneficiary will pay the proportion of the debt equivalent to the proportion of the estate they are receiving. Things get however complicated when the debts are big. Under Polish law, when the estate is not sufficient to pay the debts, the bailiff is entitled to go to any of the beneficiaries for repayment of the total balance. It is not unusual that when the beneficiary lives in England, can still be traced (as the Polish family will provide their address), has a house and a good wage, the bailiff will consider them the easier people to go after. What can be done?
If you are approached by a Polish bailiff who rightfully claims you have to pay the debts of your no longer so beloved distant aunt, you may later reclaim the sums from the other beneficiaries whose liability for such debts was unlimited (just as yours). There may however be no such beneficiaries, or if they exists, there is a reason why the bailiff did not go after them… They simply have no money. Is there therefore anything you can do to avoid your beloved distant aunt leaving you her debts?
Polish law allows you to accept inheritance directly (i.e. with no limitations), accept it with limitations or refuse it. If you refuse the inheritance you will get nothing, but you will also not be liable for anything. If you accept the inheritance with limitations, you will limit your liability for any possible debts up to the value of your inheritance. The worst case scenario is therefore that you will receive nothing. However, if after payment of the debts, there is still something left, you will benefit from that small remainder. Sounds simple enough, so why does not everyone do it this way?
The declaration concerning acceptance with limitations or refusal of an inheritance needs to be made within 6 months of the date on which you became aware the person died and you may be called to inherit from them . Your knowledge as to the composition of the estate or existence of the debts is irrelevant. If no such declaration is made within this strict deadline, you are deemed to have accepted the inheritance direct (i.e. with unlimited liability for debts).
If you do therefore ever received that call about your distant aunt dying, mark the date in your calendar! Make an appointment with a Polish Notary Public or a Polish court to file a declaration regarding refusal or limited acceptance of the inheritance. For further advice on the procedure contact a Polish lawyer.