How Inheritance Assets Are Split In Japan

Japanese inheritance rules and laws

Death is a scary prospect that nobody wants to think about. As such, many people die without leaving behind a will to stipulate how their assets should be distributed and their loved ones provided for after their death. While there are legal frameworks for dealing with inheritances and providing for heirs in the absence of a will, they do not always guarantee protection for everyone you may hold dear. Inheritance law in Japan has a particularly complex framework for dividing inheritance assets that includes only certain relatives. Unfortunately, this could leave people you care about caught in expensive legal disputes after your death – or even leave them with nothing.

Legal Inheritance Basics How Inheritance Assets Are Split In Japan

Legal inheritance in Japan defines the lawful portion each heir receives from a decedent’s estate (a “decedent” is an individual who has passed away). When a will is present, assets are typically distributed according to its terms. This helps to clarify asset distribution and prevent disputes. In the absence of a will, however, potential heirs must reach an agreement on how to divide the estate. If there is no will and they fail to do so, there will be legal mediation or judgment based on a statutory inheritance law.

Statutory inheritance delineates a framework for the allocation of a deceased individual’s remaining assets and liabilities. It offers a kind of “default” distribution method that is intended to protect the relatives of the decedent. The intention is to reflect a standard of distribution that the deceased would likely have chosen had they left behind a will. However, there are limits to statutory inheritance law that can lead to disputes among surviving family members or dependents.

The Statutory Inheritance Share

According to Japanese law, under statutory inheritance (when a will is not present), legal heirs receive prioritization. The Civil Code defines these legal heirs and structures them hierarchically based on their relationship to the deceased. The primary tiers of legal heirs consist of the following:

  • First Rank: Spouse The spouse is always considered a legal heir.
  • Second Rank: Children/Grandchildren – In the case a child has passed away, their children (the deceased’s grandchildren) become the heirs.
  • Third Rank: Parents/Grandparents – If both parents and grandparents are alive, parents become the legal heirs. If only grandparents are alive, they inherit.
  • Fourth Rank: Siblings, Nephews, and Nieces – Inheritance can only be passed to nephews and nieces if the sibling has passed away.

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In addition to legal heirs, there are also non-legal heirs. These individuals receive no inheritance rights unless otherwise agreed upon by the surviving legal heirs. This is the case regardless of their relationship with the deceased. Non-legal heirs include:

  • Common-law spouses & same-sex partners: Don’t have inheritance rights, but can be bequeathed property through a will.
  • Divorced ex-spouses: Spouses lose inheritance rights upon divorce, regardless of subsequent living arrangements.
  • Stepchildren: Unless legally adopted or provided for with a will, stepchildren have no inheritance rights.
  • Those disqualified due to criminal acts: This includes those who have intentionally harmed the deceased, forged/changed a will deceitfully, or obstructed changes to a will, among others.
  • Others not included in the list of legal heirs: Other relatives such as sons- and daughters-in-law who are not considered legal heirs will not be provided for under statutory inheritance law

If statutory inheritance law presides over the inheritance distribution, the ranking system of legal heirs determines each remaining heir’s eligibility and share of the inheritance. The proportions of each heir’s share in the inheritance will be contingent upon the number and ranking of other present legal heirs. 

Inheritance Distribution by Legal Heir Status: A Granular Breakdown

The division of assets according to statutory iheritance law in Japan can get quite complicated when you have more than one surviving heir. This is especially true if the remaining heirs are from different ranks, in which case inheritance distribution becomes a complex web of fractions and percentages. To help clarify how the mathematics will play out, here are some examples: 

  • For the Spouse:
      • Only spouse: Inherits everything.
      • With first-ranked heirs (Children/grandchildren): 1/2.
      • With second-ranked heirs (Parents/grandparents): 2/3.
      • With third-ranked heirs (Siblings, nephews, nieces): 3/4.
    • Statutory Inheritance in Japan
  • For Children/Grandchildren:
      • With a spouse: 1/2 (If multiple children/grandchildren, this is divided equally among them).
      • Only children/grandchildren: Inherits everything (Divided equally if more than one).
  • For Parents/Grandparents:
      • With a spouse: 1/3 (Divided equally if multiple parents/grandparents).
      • Only parents/grandparents: Inherits everything (Divided equally if more than one).
  • For Siblings, Nephews, and Nieces:
    • With a spouse: 1/4 (Divided equally if multiple siblings/nephews/nieces).
    • Only siblings, nephews, nieces: Inherits everything (Divided equally if more than one).

As you might predict, these distribution percentages can leave some legal heirs (and many non-legal heirs) dissatisfied or feeling cheated, leading to disputes and legal battles. Unfortunately, such disputes are quite common – even when the inheritance left behind is relatively small. In fact, 32% of inheritance division cases concern assets totaling less than 10 million yen.

Avoiding Disputes And Providing for Non-Legal Heirs

If you wish to deviate from the conventional structure of inheritance division in Japan, prevent disputes among your remaining loved ones, and provide for “non-legal heirs” after your death, the best course of action is to leave behind a legal will. A will allows you the liberty to distribute your assets as you deem fit. However, creating an effective will requires a thorough understanding of Japanese inheritance law. An experienced financial adviser can guide you through the process of crafting a will that ensures your loved ones will reap the intended benefits. This can not only ensure that your wishes will be honored after your death, but also provide you with peace of mind in knowing that your loved ones won’t be left to fight over their inheritance rights.


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Sources and Further Reading