Certificate of inheritance
If the heirs of a foreign estate wish to access Swiss assets which belonged to the deceased, the applicable standard of care requires the Swiss bank or authority to carefully examine the legitimacy of the heirs. Therefore, they ask the heirs to present a valid certificate of inheritance to confirm that they are actually recognized as heirs and entitled to the assets.
If the Swiss assets form part of the foreign estate
In practice, Swiss banks and authorities that are familiar with international estates regularly accept foreign certificates of inheritance if there is no reason to doubt their authenticity and/or accuracy. In case of uncertainties, the foreign certificate of inheritance (or similar document) may be recognized by way of Swiss recognition proceedings pursuant to the Swiss Private International Law Act. Such recognition is done in summary proceedings and usually non-controversial. Once recognized, the foreign document is considered as sufficient proof of the capacity and standing of an heir vis-à-vis Swiss banks and authorities.
If the foreign authority does not deal with Swiss assets
Another complication may occur if the authorities at the last place of residence of the deceased do not exercise jurisdiction over assets located abroad, e.g., bank accounts or real estate located in Switzerland. This is for example the case if the deceased was residing in Brazil. In this case, the heirs have the possibility to apply for a Swiss domestic certificate of inheritance. Depending on the canton that has jurisdiction, the certificate of inheritance is issued either by the notary (e.g., Bern, Geneva), the court (e.g., Zurich, Aargau) or another public authority (e.g., Basel-City). The documents required to obtain a certificate of inheritance usually include the death certificate, wills or contracts of succession, family records and potentially a legal opinion. The administrative costs for a certificate of inheritance range from a few hundred to a few thousand Swiss Francs. In terms of timing, the issuance of a certificate of inheritance takes between a few days and several weeks, depending on the competent authority and the availability of the requested documents.
Further assets in the European Union
Where the deceased also held assets in the European Union (EU), the heirs have the option to request a European certificate of succession from the competent EU authority which will enable them to prove their status and exercise their rights in any EU country. A European succession certificate is automatically recognized in all EU countries but formally not in Switzerland as Switzerland is not a member state of the EU. In practice, a European certificate of succession is however usually accepted by Swiss banks and authorities. If not, it may also be recognized by a Swiss court within the framework of recognition proceedings outlined above.
The Litigation and Risk Management Team of Loyens & Loeff Switzerland regularly advises heirs with respect to Swiss assets and is gladly available for any queries you might have.