Italians have a well-known, practically folkloric, figure called Lo Zio Americano (The American Uncle). This is the family member who emigrated to the New World, making his fortune and sending money and modern surprises back to his family in the Old Country. Today’s economic environment has perhaps put a new twist on this tale, resulting in the creation of “The Italian Uncle”.
The figure of The Italian Uncle brings with him dreams of a historic villa nestled in the vineyards and Cypress trees of Tuscany. A beautiful villa which passes after The Uncle’s death to his only remaining relative: a long-lost nephew living the modern reality of corporate life in America. The possibility of this scenario actually occurring is, of course, very slim. A beautiful Italian villa whose inheritance has been left in question is typically the source of legal battles and in-fighting among the potential inheritors, and wouldn’t pass smoothly into the hands of someone not even present in the country. But, it is a wonderful daydream when one is stuck in front of a computer screen enclosed in a gray cubicle.
And, as most folklores are, the story of The Italian Uncle is based in the reality of Italian inheritance law. While the deed to a Tuscan villa will most likely not effortlessly end up in your mailbox, it is possible for those of Italian descent to research and find legitimate claims to an Italian inheritance. Many people have turned what was formerly just a hobby of researching the family tree into an active search of familial inheritance transfers, with the true hope that they might end up improving their financial situation. This new research into the famiglia can be called "Inheritance Hunting".
Sometimes the idea is sparked by old legends circulating in the family and typically a lot of research must be done to find the facts embedded within the legends. Quite often the search starts online based on very little information (remember the nephew daydreaming in front of his computer?). In certain cases though, families may even have some documents such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, title deeds or powers of attorney, which provide a good basis for the research and can also accelerate the process.
The idea of inheritance hunting is also grounded in the facts of Italian inheritance law. If an Italian dies intestate (i.e., without a will) his inheritance is distributed to his descendants proportionately in accordance with Italian law. (For a visual representation of this distribution, here you can find a chart of the Italian inheritance path.) This can mean that even distant relatives can have legal rights to the inheritance. Legally, relatives of the intestate can claim a portion or all of the inheritance up to the sixth level of the relation. For example, if there is no will, a person can claim inheritance on an estate that belonged to a sixth level relative, such as his second cousin, the child of a cousin of his parents. The law granting claims from up to the sixth level of familial relationship allows for many possibilities in an inheritance matter.
Dreams of inheriting an Italian villa in your head, but questions of how to begin your hunt? An ideal starting point is the name of the person who would have left the estate and his residence. Otherwise, it is typically possible to trace back the path using other family documents. If there is no concrete means to start the search, it can also be initiated from the “hunter’s” birth certificate showing his parents’ information which can be researched and the family tree can be thus established spreading out in all directions. Based on these names, a search on the Italian national registry of wills can be done with the hopes that there is a will indicating beneficiaries who have yet to confirm their inheritance.
An important thing to remember is that under Italian law whatever is inherited is transferred in its entirety to the inheritor including both assets and detriments. This means that if there are years of back taxes due on a property, the inheritor must pay those taxes to rightfully own the property. Italian law recognizes these burdens and helps the inheritor by delineating reasonable statutory terms based on which only the taxes accrued in most recent years are due. This is typically from 3 to 5 years back, depending on the tax. The assets and burdens are important factors to understand and evaluate prior to accepting any inheritance.
Best of luck to any Italian inheritance hunters out there. Perhaps there is a Tuscan villa waiting for you after all!
Please check this space on the ItalyMag website regularly as, on a bimonthly basis, we will be publishing editorials on various aspects of Italian property.
Previous articles in this series:
- Getting Money Out of Your Italian Property – 11 January 2011;
- Save More Than 50% on Rental Property Taxes – 31 January 2011;
- Good News for Italian Property Owners: You Don’t Need an Italian Will - 21 February 2011.
Nick Metta is a partner at the Italian law firm, Studio Legale Metta. Nick is head of the firm's international department which addresses matters of Italian law involving international parties in areas such as Italian real estate, property financing and Italian inheritance law.
Adrienne W. Stranere is Studio Legale Metta’s business development manager.
The Italian law firm Studio Legale Metta is a boutique firm of Italian Attorneys. Established more than 120 years ago, the firm handles domestic and international casework throughout Italy.
This article does not represent legal advice. Users are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice concerning their individual needs for legal assistance.
Studio Legale Metta has paid for this article. Copyright of Studio Legale Metta, 10 March 2011