Elder Law Estate Planning Legal Topics

What to Do If Your Client Dies Abroad

Although most attorneys never get involved with probate administration outside the United States, you might encounter practical problems if your client, who’s a California domiciliary, dies abroad.

The first thing to do when a U.S. citizen dies in a foreign country is to contact the U.S. Department of State or the American consulate of the country in which the death occurred. This is for a few very practical reasons:

  1. U.S. consul acts as conservator. Until a U.S. representative or family member is located, the U.S. consul acts as provisional conservator of the decedent’s personal estate. He or she has limited authority to take possession of the decedent’s personal effects, including convertible assets, jewelry, nonnegotiable instruments, and personal documents. He or she may also take into possession bank books (but not bank accounts) in foreign countries. 22 USC §2715c; 22 CFR §72.13.
  2. U.S. consulate office has necessary documents for beginning probate proceedings in the United States. On request and payment of costs, the personnel at the consulate office will forward notarized copies of death certificates issued in the country in which the death occurred. In addition, they’ll issue a Consular Report of Death of a U.S. Citizen Abroad, which is a death record in English that may be used to begin probate proceedings in the United States. Check the U.S. Department of State website for information on this and other consular assistance, and to locate the nearest consulate.
  3. U.S. consulate office will know local procedures. The procedures in foreign countries are often very different from those in the United States. Even routine matters can become complex. For example, in parts of Western Europe, a certified copy of California letters testamentary is insufficient; the current certified letters must also carry an Apostille (see Hague Convention of Oct. 5, 1961, 33 UST 883) issued by the California Secretary of State’s Office attesting to the authenticity of the county clerk’s certification under the seal of the Office of the Secretary of State.

Once you’ve obtained the necessary documents, you’ll proceed with probate of the decedent’s estate in the United States. For step-by-step guidance through the probate process, turn to CEB’s Action Guide Handling a Probate and get comprehensive, in-depth coverage (including forms) of probate practice and procedures in CEB’s California Decedent Estate Practice. On authenticating foreign documents (Apostille), see CEB’s California Probate Workflow Manual Revised §21.5

Other CEBblog™ posts you may find useful:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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