The Yomiuri Shimbun
Reflect needs of graying population in revision of inheritance legislation
相続法制見直し 高齢社会に見合う仕組みとは

It is important to establish a system of inheritance that takes into account the needs of Japan’s rapidly graying society.

The Legislative Council is gathering opinions from the public regarding a tentative draft put together to revise a Civil Code provision related to the inheritance of property left by the deceased.

The focus of the draft is to protect the rights of the spouse of the deceased. As one of its proposed measures, the Justice Ministry panel says the spouse’s right of residence should be established. This right would allow the spouse to continue living in the house for a certain period of time, even if he or she does not have the right of ownership.

When a couple has no property of any value other than their house, the spouse of the deceased is sometimes forced to sell the house due to the partition of the estate involved. This means that the spouse could end up with no place to live if they are aged and only have a tiny income. Establishing the spouse’s right of residence is expected to help prevent such a situation from arising.

The panel’s draft also includes a proposed increase in the spouse’s legal portion of an inheritance.

Under the current law, the spouse’s share is fixed regardless of the length of the couple’s married life. However short their marriage is, the spouse inherits half of the property involved if the estate is divided between the spouse and children. With the rise in the number of elderly people who choose to remarry, however, there are growing doubts about this system.

With this in mind, the panel has proposed increasing the spouse’s portion of an inheritance if the couple is married longer than a certain period of time — for example, 20 or 30 years. Another proposal would raise the spouse’s share in proportion to an increase in the size of the property after the couple married. These proposed ideas have been included in the latest draft.

It is understandable that the council has sought to make sure the degree of the spouse’s contribution to property accumulation is reflected in his or her portion of an inheritance.

Downside to proposal

The panel’s latest discussions were prompted when the civil law was revised in 2013. In response to a Supreme Court ruling that the disparities in inheritance shares allotted to children born in or out of wedlock were unconstitutional, the pertinent civil law provision was abolished. This drew objections from Diet members of the Liberal Democratic Party and others, who said the legal change could “upset the family system, which is built on legal marriage.”

Considering the circumstances under which the council began its discussions, the direction of the draft proposal is reasonable, as it clarifies the significance of legal marriage by protecting the rights of the spouse.

However, the panel’s proposal involves a downside — the procedures involved would become more complex.

If the spouse exercises the right of residence for extended periods, it would be deemed that he or she had inherited the bulk of the property involved. How would the value of that inheritance be assessed?

The draft also includes a plan to create a mechanism by which anyone, other than heirs to the estate involved, would be authorized to demand monetary payments if that person had rendered services to the deceased person, such as providing nursing care.

If the number of people involved in an inheritance increases, feuds among relatives and others would become more common and last for extended periods.

After studying public opinion, the council will hold further discussions on pertinent issues. The Justice Ministry wants to submit to the Diet a bill aimed at revising the civil law by the end of next year at the earliest.

We hope the ministry will work out a new system in a way that attaches importance to procedures that are easy to understand, as inheritance is a personal issue for everyone.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 29, 2016)