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Japan: Civil Code Amended to Enable Elderly Widows and Widowers to Continue Living in Deceased Spouse’s Residence

(Sept. 6, 2018) The inheritance chapter of Japan’s Civil Code was amended in July 2018. (Act to Amend Civil Code and Domestic Relations Case Procedure Act, Act No. 72 of 2018, KANPOU [OFFICIAL GAZETTE] Extra Ed., No. 154, at 4 (July 13, 2018), National Printing Bureau website (in Japanese).) The amendment will become effective by July 2019. (Act No. 72 of 2018, Supp. Provisions art. 1.)

Among other things, the amendment created the right for a widow or widower to continue living in an inherited residence. When a widow or widower has lived in a home that belonged to her/his deceased spouse at the time of the spouse’s death, the widow or widower will have right to keep living there for free if the spouse has granted the widow or widower such a right or if the right is given when the estate is divided among the heirs. (CIVIL CODE, as amended by Act No. 72 of 2018, art. 1028.) In the latter instance, there are two types of cases: (1) the heirs agree to give such a right to the widow or widower, and (2) the widow or widower requests the court to grant her/him such a right, and the court finds it necessary to maintain that right, even if doing so is to the detriment of the owner of the residence. (Id. art. 1029.) Such a right to residence lasts until the widow or widower dies, but can end sooner than that. (Id. art. 1030.) The owner of the residence is obligated to register the widow or widower’s right to residence. (Id. art. 1031.) The widow or widower cannot transfer the right and cannot rent the residence to others. (Id. art. 1032, paras. 2 & 3.) Because the appraisal value of the right to the residence would be lower than that of residence’s ownership value, the widow or widower would likely receive other assets from her/his spouse besides the residence. (Cabinet Decision on Spouse’s Right to Residence, Bill to Amend Civil Code and Others, MAINICHI (Mar. 13, 2018) (in Japanese).)

Even if a widow or widower does not obtain the right to keep living at the residence owned by her/his deceased spouse, if the widow or widower was living at the residence for free at the time of the spouse’s death, the widow or widower will be able to keep living at the residence for free for six months after the estate is divided. (Id. art. 1037.)

In addition, in the case of a widow or widower who had been married to the deceased spouse for 20 years or more, if the deceased spouse before his/her death gave their residential property to the partner as a gift or left it to the spouse in his/her will, the value of the property is to be excluded from the value of the estate when the estate is divided among the heirs. (Id. art. 903, para. 4.)