The Belgian state often tasks banks with collecting and paying taxes, as well as protecting its financial interest. Succession rights are no exception, as the Belgian state expects that the bank play a proactive role on the succession procedure by freezing the accounts of the deceased or of their spouse. This freeze is often very surprising and frustrating for the heirs, who have often not been made aware before being confronted with it. Let’s have a look at the situation, to better grasp it.

What exactly are we talking about?

When a citizen dies, banks are legally required to freeze his bank accounts and/or his spouse’s bank accounts. This guarantees the following:

  1. The heirs are protected against the possibility of one of them debiting the entirety of the accounts of the deceased;
  2. The interest of the Belgian Treasury is protected, by allowing and ensuring a correct levy of the succession rights as well as other open fiscal and social debts.

The bank is expected to keep the accounts frozen until she is provided with the necessary information as per the law. This applies to cash/current accounts as well as to savings accounts and securities accounts (and safes). This is often a surprise, as banks are not only required to freeze accounts of the deceased clients, but also accounts of their clients when their spouses die. Absent any specific contractual provision, each spouse is considered the owner of half of the couple’s estate, including the own accounts of the deceased. 

Which accounts will the bank freeze in practice?

In practice, the following accounts will be frozen by the bank as of when she is made aware of the death of one of her client’s or of its spouse:

–        The own accounts of the deceased client;

–        The joint accounts of the deceased client with its spouse or legal/factual cohabitant;

–        Own accounts of the spouse;

–        Joint accounts of the deceased client and third parties;

–        Joint accounts of the spouse and a third party;

–        Joint accounts of the deceased client and his spouse and a third party.

What are the consequences of this freeze for the (joint) accountholders?

They will no longer be able to withdraw or debit any money from these accounts.

The law nevertheless permits the bank to provide the spouse or the legal/factual cohabitant with a sum which may not exceed the higher of one half of the sums on the bank accounts or 5,000 euro (all banks included). Without going into detail, heirs should be wary of adverse consequences when debiting money above this limit.

Is that all?

No, the law also allows the bank to release the necessary sums to pay certain very specific costs, such as funeral expenses, or so-called “last sickness expenses”. Based on an invoice, the bank will then liberate the sums.

Furthermore, the tax authorities allow the payment of certain expenses linked to the deceased’s last domicile, such as water bills, electricity, fuel, gas, etc, under certain conditions.

How will the accounts be unfrozen?

To be able to unfreeze the accounts, the should be provided with one of the following two documents imposed by law:

  1. A certificate of inheritance drafted by the Administration of Legal Security of the tax authorities;
  2. A certificate of inheritance drafted by a notary.

Furthermore, only the notary will be allowed to draft a certificate of inheritance in the following cases:

  1. There is a will;
  2. Some heirs are incapacitated, for example because they are minors;
  3. In case of contractual clauses, such as a marriage contract or an inheritance agreement.

These documents should be provided to the bank by the persons who want the accounts to be unfrozen.

This allows the tax authorities one additional chance to confirm whether the deceased, his spouse or on of their heirs has any open fiscal or social debts towards the state. The bank will only be able to unfreeze the accounts after it has received confirmation that

  1. There are no open fiscal and social debts; or
  2. Open fiscal or social debts will be settled with the sums on the frozen accounts or other.

Only then can the bank legally unfreeze the accounts. If a bank would allow payment or withdrawal exceeding the authorized sums, she could be forced to settle said fiscal or social debts.

Is this all the bank needs to do?

No, because the bank is also required to provide the tax authorities with a detailed overview including a list of the assets that will be inherited by the heirs. This list should enable the tax authorities to review the succession rights return filed by the heirs. The bank’s personal responsibility could be at stake if she authorises payments exceeding the authorised amounts without having complied with all applicable conditions.

Specific cases

If you are married under the “separation as to property” regime, you can unfreeze your own accounts simply by providing the bank with a copy of your marriage contract or with a letter from the notary.

Heirs residing outside of the European Economic Area will need to provide collateral for the payment of their succession rights.

Additional information

Unblocking a bank account | FPS Finance (