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Law in order: A guide to navigating Belgium’s legal system, from tax and marriage to wills and buying a house
Most people only see lawyers and notaries during major life events like marriage, divorce and death. You might not know to whom or where to turn to for advice, especially if you’re living in another country while going through one of these challenges. Navigating an alien legal system can be a frustrating, even maddening experience. Here, we explain what to expect and what you need to know so you can walk into that lawyer’s or notary’s office prepared.
If you’re coming to Belgium for professional reasons, you will generally be required to pay taxes on any income you earn while you’re here. The first step is to register at your local commune, a step that will make you a tax resident of that municipality from that day forward. It’s also important that you give up your residency in your hometown to avoid being taxed on the same income twice – by Belgium and by your native country.
“If you come to Belgium as an employee, most of your taxes are taken care of by your employer,” says Marc Quaghebeur, a partner and lawyer at cabinet David in Brussels. In Belgium, employees – expat and otherwise – receive monthly pay slips detailing their salary payments, benefits in kind, social security payments and personal income tax automatically withheld by your employer from your salary on your behalf. This is called bedrijfsvoorheffing in Dutch or précompte professionnel in French.
Around February or March, you’ll receive a statement from your employer by post itemising how much personal income tax has already been withheld, along with many other details. Copy this information into your tax return and then wait to receive your final tax assessment a couple of months later. If your employer withheld too much tax, you will be reimbursed the amount overpaid. If not enough tax was withheld, you’ll have two months to pay the tax bill.
If you work in the Brussels bubble, you have it even easier – employees of the European institutions don’t pay personal income tax on their salaries in Belgium. “Usually, you continue to pay tax on your other income in the state that you were a resident of before you came to Belgium,” Quaghebeur explains.
If you are your own boss and come to Belgium in a self-employed capacity, your best option is probably to hire an accountant. You’ll need to charge value-added tax on your services or products, and pay social security taxes and personal income tax – preferably in advance. Accountants can help you with all that, and also help you make tax savings you didn’t know were possible. “An accountant is best placed because they know what is tax-deductible and what isn’t,” Quaghebeur says.
The most important thing to remember if you and your partner want to tie the knot in Belgium is that you will be married under the Belgian legal regime by default unless you sign a prenuptial agreement. Such marriage contracts inventory the wealth and assets of both partners and stipulate how any wealth accrued during the marriage is to be divvied up in the event of a divorce or death.
The Belgian legal regime may not suit your needs, however. “Expats who don’t intend to spend the rest of their lives in Belgium would benefit from a contract that can move with them,” says Nathalie Labeeuw, an attorney at the Cazimir law firm who specialises in family law. “So if there is a divorce, you can fall back on this agreement – no matter whether you’re living in France, Italy or Spain.”
Should you and your partner wish to get a divorce, there are two possibilities under Belgian law. Which one you pursue will depend on how troubled the spousal waters have become. Under an out-of-court divorce by mutual consent, an agreement is drawn up that arranges for the end of the marriage and division of the estate, a custody plan if the couple has children and alimony terms. If agreement on the end of your marriage is impossible to reach, you’ll have to go to a family court and thrash it out there.
When it comes to expats, custody agreements are always “a problem”, Labeeuw says. Because if either of the child’s parents doesn’t stay in Belgium, any custody agreement is bound to have a limited life span. “As long as they stay in Belgium – fine. But when they move it’s often difficult to get a custody agreement upheld abroad,” she says.
Buying a house
The long wait before the purchase of a property is finalised is one of the things that invariably surprises expats about the process of buying a house in Belgium. “This tends to take about a month,” says Alexander Caudron, junior notary at Berquin Notaries, pointing out that notaries must request information from various government agencies that can take one to four weeks to obtain.
The process begins with making a bid on the property of your choice, which most prospective buyers tend do to with the help of a real estate agency or a notary. From the moment bid this is accepted by the buyer, it becomes binding. “That’s why it’s the vital that the bid is correctly drawn up because anything that isn’t included in the bid will have to be negotiated later,” says Caudron. If the bid is accepted by the seller, a purchase deed is typically drawn up by the seller’s notary, which is reviewed and adjusted by the buyer’s notary if necessary before it’s signed by both parties. Congratulations, you’ve just bought a house in Belgium!
Drawing up a will
When it comes to drawing up a will, you have three options. The first is to simply take a piece of paper, write what you want done with your assets and sign the document. Ideally, you would give this holographic will to a notary, who can then have it registered in the national database of wills. If you’re worried about relatives or children disputing your will after your death, the second option might be best for you – having an “authentic will” drawn up in a notary’s office in the presence of two witnesses. “This offers you a bit more safety because the notary will also ascertain whether the testator is sound of mine, so there can be no discussion about this among the heirs later,” Caudron says.
The third option is to draft an international will, which is particularly useful for expats with property or an estate abroad because it is made in accordance with a standard format that’s used and recognised in many countries in Europe and further afield.
Lawyer or notary?
There are two important differences between lawyers and notaries – one legal, the other attitudinal. A notary has the exclusive authority to draw up deeds, something lawyers aren’t allowed to do. Notaries also tend to act as mediators and try and find compromise between the different parties in a dispute. Lawyers, on the other hand, have an obligation to defend the interests of their client, which puts them in a more adversarial position from the get-go.
Common or civil law?
Like most other continental European countries, Belgium has a civil law system, which means judges try cases by applying fixed statutes and codes to the facts of a case. Under the common law system of most Anglo-Saxon countries, on the other hand, judges rely more heavily on previous rulings and judicial opinions to decide a case.
This article first appeared in ING Expat Time magazine. ING regularly organises free workshops for expats aimed at helping them navigate Belgium’s legal system, covering everything from real estate transactions to estate planning
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