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Retirement in Belgium: What to do when a loved one dies
At this difficult time there are a number of procedures and formalities which must be observed. Many can be handled by a funeral company but others should be tackled by the family. Be aware that Belgian traditions may differ from those from the country you come from. You may want to arrange this beforehand.
A death must be reported and registered at the earliest possible opportunity, although there is no official time limit. In many cases, hospital staff or a doctor will guide the process. The death must be reported in the commune where the person died. This is usually taken care of by the funeral parlour.
As well as requiring a death certificate delivered by the GP or hospital, the authorities will need the deceased’s official documents – birth and marriage papers, identity card, driver’s license and any formal or informal written statement of the deceased’s wishes, including how the remains should be dealt with.
The family or funeral parlour makes the arrangements for a burial or cremation date with the local administration. There is no time limit within which burial or cremation must take place, however a delay of at least 24 hours following the death must be respected.
If the burial is not taking place locally, then it will be necessary to provide a burial authorisation from the commune where it will be held.
If the deceased is to be cremated, it must be declared at this point (and a separate cremation authorisation will be issued) as must the wish to bury the deceased in the family plot, if one exists.
Any citizen can draw up a document to state how they wish to be dealt with after death – burial or cremation and dispersal of ashes. This document can be officially registered with the commune and cannot be overturned by any relative or other person. It is known as a “Formulaire pour la destination des dernières volontés quant au mode de sépulture/Formulier betreffende de laatste wil inzake de wijze van teraardebestelling” and a standard form for completion can be obtained from municipal offices.
Burial in Belgium, in a grave on municipal ground in a cemetery, is free for five years. However, families have the right to pay for a grave site for up to 50 years and to keep renewing this in their family if they wish. If you have not paid for a concession, the grave can be cleared out after 10 years.
Some religions have their own cemeteries. This is the case for Muslims and Jewish people. Belgium does not allow for a perpetual concession, causing families to choose neighbouring countries or countries of origin. The website of the Executief van de Moslims van België/Exécutif des Musulmans de Belgique (Muslim Counsil) lists Muslim burial sites in Belgium: www.embnet.be/fr/annuaire-des-cimetieres.
Belgian graves must be kept tended and clean at all times or the deceased’s family will be issued with a warning from the commune. This is mainly a concern for graves with a concession for up to 50 years. Specialized companies can maintain the grave for you. Embalming is not permitted except with express permission and this is normally only allowed where the body must be transported internationally – for repatriation, for example. The commune can provide more information on the local situation about burial.
Further information, see Funebra, the official site for funeral organisations in Belgium: www.funebra.be
If burial or cremation is to take place outside Belgium, the funeral parlour will make many of the arrangements. Once the documentation has been prepared, the following procedures must be followed:
- The coffin has to be sealed and checked by the police, who will provide additional documentation;
- A medical certificate is required stating that the body has no infectious diseases. Some countries insist that the body is embalmed before travel;
- The authorities in the country where the body is to be repatriated must provide paperwork confirming acceptance of the body;
- The commune where the death occurred and was registered provides a transfer licence for the body;
- Transportation of the body must also follow agreed procedures familiar to funeral parlours.
Foreign nationals should contact their embassy in Belgium, as they will normally assist with repatriation and advise on the formalities to be completed. While embassies can provide death certificates if required for their own nationals, Belgian death certificates are recognised by many countries. Make sure you have an insurance which covers the repatriation of the body if death occurs whilst travelling.
Belgian inheritance tax rules are complex, liable to change, and vary from region to region: helping you throught these rules is the job of the notary.
The tax rates applicable to partners and children of the deceased can be as low as 3% and as high as 30%. Rates are higher for non-family beneficiaries of an estate. Although you can opt to apply your national inheritance law to decide who inherits, you cannot opt for your national inheritance tax rate.
Tax authorities in all regions exempt the partner from inheritance tax on the family home. In Belgian inheritance law there is the system of “forced heirship” – the deceased’s spouse and children are, between them, entitled to half of the total estate. The remainder, however, can be distributed according to a will or a donation.
Foreign residents in Belgium can opt to have their estate handled according to the laws of their home country instead, as long as this wish has been made clear in a will or a separate declaration. However, this provision does not to apply in Denmark, Ireland, and the UK, as these countries opted out.
Accepting an inheritance includes an obligation to pay the deceased’s debts – even if they exceed the value of the estate. You can however avoid paying these debts if you refuse the inheritance.
Rules on the value of gifts such as money or “movable” personal possessions are assessed not simply on their value at the time of the gifting by the deceased, but on the value at the time, index-linked to the value on the day of the death.
Your notary will not only help with financial formalities and the last will and testament, but will also advise and assist on issues such as organ donation, donating a body to science and arranging the funeral.
Survival pension for spouse
Under certain conditions the bulk of a deceased person’s pension – 80% – can be transferred to a surviving spouse or partner, as long as he or she is at least 45 years old. Below that age, eligibility for the pension can be transferred if the couple had a child or children, and if the surviving spouse is at least 66% disabled.
If the deceased had not reached pension age, the surviving partner – again in certain circumstances – is entitled to 80% of what the pension would have been if the deceased had lived to retirement age, based on their average wage at time of death.
Even without meeting those criteria, a spouse may be granted a temporary pension, for up to one year. Further information at www.mypension.be
Of all the technical and bureaucratic formalities relatives have to deal with at such a time of personal tragedy, the one issue many are often unprepared for in Belgium is the immediate closure of all the deceased’s bank accounts.
They are blocked as soon as the bank has been informed of the death, to protect the inheritance rights of the heirs, although cash deposits and credit transfers can still be received into the accounts – and, crucially, standing order payments already in force prior to death will be maintained.
The shutdown can cause obvious complications for family members so banks arrange limited access funds for the surviving spouse or legal partner to meet on-going day-to-day expenses on behalf of the deceased.
However, the amount is restricted to a maximum of half the deceased’s cash assets or 5,000 euro, whichever is the smaller – and even that cannot be drawn on the bank until the deceased’s tax return has been filed, a copy of the certificate of succession has been received and until it has been established that there are no outstanding tax or social security debts.
In practice, banks will pay any hospital and medical bills, utilities bills and rent from the deceased’s accounts for the last twelve months before death. Other bills will not be paid. Consider opening seperate bank accounts for both partners to avoid this administrative entanglement.
Support when coping with bereavement
- The Community Help Service which runs the Mental Health Centre in Brussels, is a professional team of psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists who offer confidential support to English speakers of any nationality, including bereavement counselling. Helpline: 02.648.40.14 (www.chsbelgium.org)
- Psychologist Belgium offers bereavement counselling: www.psychologist-belgium.be
Your own death: Belgian rules on euthanasia
Euthanasia is legal in Belgium. Under current law, a patient must be over 18, of sound mind, terminally ill and in constant physical or mental pain in order to qualify for euthanasia. The patient must be a resident of Belgium but not necessarily a citizen.
Death by lethal injection and by prescribed overdose are both allowed, with the decision a matter jointly for the doctor and patient. The patient has to submit a written request, and the opinion of a second and in some cases third doctor needs to be asked in order to complete the procedure.
This association provides comprehensive information to interested parties in Belgium: ADMD (Association pour le droit de mourir dans la dignité – www.admd.be)
Living will euthanasia
If you put in a request for euthanasia, you have to be mentally competent and conscious. There is an exception. A living will for euthanasia allows you to request euthanasia beforehand, when you are still sound of mind, in case you become irreversibly unconscious, i.e. when you are in a coma.
You can’t use this living will euthanasia if you (slowly) become incompetent, for example when living with dementia. In that case consciousness is affected but not absent. You may register your living will for euthanasia with your commune but this is not compulsory. The living will euthanasia is not binding.
This article appears in Golden years in Belgium: an expat guide to life after retirement, produced by the King Baudouin Foundation and the Federation of Notaries, available to download for free.