Introduction to the Korean Inheritance Law

[Updated on April 19th, 2020] Under the Korean inheritance law, the inheritance comes to fruition immediately when a person is deceased. The Korean inheritance law, the part V of Civil Act, provides who shall become the inheritor and beneficiary of the property of a deceased person, i.e. estate.

The inheritor and beneficiary, however, shall not always take everything from the estate. There are separate rules and restrictions on the distribution of the estate in South Korea.

In this article, we will explain to you the basic rules and practices of inheritance in Korea.

Who Shall Become the Heirs and How to Distribute the Estate under the Korean Inheritance Law

The basic rule of the Korean inheritance law is that the property of the deceased is distributed according to his or her will.  So, a person who is not categorized as an inheritor by law can become a beneficiary of the estate by the decedent’s will. 

What if there is no valid will?  The Korean inheritance law sets forth the rule of intestate succession.  This rule of intestate succession names the beneficiary and the shares of each beneficiary for a distribution purpose.  

According to the intestate succession rule, persons become beneficiaries in the following order.

  1. Direct descendants (children or grandchildren)
  2. Direct ascendants (parents or grandparents)
  3. Siblings
  4. Relative within the 4th degree of collateral consanguinity

If there are multiple persons standing in the same rank, the closest in the degree of relationship shall have the priority.  There could be multiple persons in the same rank and the same degree of relationship.  In such a case, they become co-inheritors and co-beneficiaries.  The shares of the co-beneficiaries are all equal.

If the child is adopted, the parental relationship is established and the child can inherit the adoptive parent. Can the adopted child inherit the birth parent? Please refer to our article on the inheritance right of the adopted child.

Surviving Spouse’s Inheritance Right and Share

The spouse has a unique position here.  If there are no relatives in the first and second rank, the spouse shall become the sole inheritor.  If there is any inheritor(s) in the first or second rank, the spouse shall become the co-inheritor with that inheritor(s).  

As to the share, the Korean law provides more protection to the spouse.  According to the Korean intestate succession rule, the spouse shall have 50% more share than those of other co-inheritors.  

For example, let’s assume a deceased left a spouse, 2 children, and the parents.  The 2 children and the spouse shall become the co-inheritors with each child.  The inheritance shares are 2/7 for each child and 3/7 for the spouse.

Calculation of Actual Share

Although it is clear that the Korean inheritance law prescribes each heir’s statutory share, the actual calculation of what each heir shall take eventually is not a simple process.

That is because there could be some situation like one heir had taken a significant gift from the deceased already or one heir had supported the deceased specially. In such a situation, distributing the estate only by the statutory share could he unfair. Here, the Korean inheritance law provides 2 legal concepts to mitigate potential unfairness.

Special Contributory Share

If any heir had provided a deceased with a special contribution in taking care of the deceased or in maintaining/increasing the value of the estate, she is entitled to take some portion out of the estate. We call it a special contribution share.

Basically, the heirs should agree who shall have a special contributory share and how much. If such agreement is hard to reach, the court will make a decision per the heir’s request.

Previously we wrote an article on this special share. If you’re interested, please check on this article.

Special Benefit

If any heir had received any assets/money from the deceased when the deceased was alive, we call it a “special benefit”. The Korean inheritance law treats the special benefit as a prepayment of inheritance share. Thus, the court deducts the value of the special benefit from the heir’s inheritance share when calculating how much the heir can get from the estate.

It is very common in Korea that an heir receives a wide range of supports from their old parents. Sometimes it could be cash, sometimes lands. It is the job of you and your lawyer to find out how much the Korean heir received the benefits.

Deceased Cannot Disinherit an Heir Entirely – Elective Share

As mentioned earlier, the rule of intestate succession only applies when there is no valid will.  Does this mean the deceased can dispose of the estate freely by his own will?  The answer is not always.  The Korean inheritance law recognizes an elective share, i.e. a statutory minimum share to the estate which is obliged to go to an inheritor.  This is intended to protect the inheritor from being disinherited or left only a small portion of the estate.  Thanks to this rule, an inheritor may elect to receive the minimum statutory share despite what the deceased had written on the will.  The decedent’s freedom to making a will is restricted by this elective share.

Currently, the elective share under Korean inheritance law is 50% of intestate succession share which an inheritor would have received under the intestacy law. 

So, in the above example, let’s further assume that the deceased had left a will that named his spouse as the sole beneficiary.  Even in such a situation, the 2 children can still claim for the elective share.  The elective shares are 1/7 for each child.

Transparency and Knowledge Are Essential in Dealing with Korean Heirs

Most of the inheritance disputes in Korea center on contesting the will and enforcing the elective share.  (There are other issues such as a contributory share and a deductible special benefit.  We will explain these important issues later with other posts)  

We have seen many cases where the Korean heirs urge a non-Korean heir to hand over a certain legal document.  They say that they need the document urgently in order to take care of the distribution and tax report. The problem is that they often do not fully disclose the situation of the estate and the foreign heir’s rights.  They even provide false information about Korean law and practice.  This could harm the transparency of the whole process of distribution.  This also could cause a considerable financial loss to the foreign heir who is lack of sufficient and reliable information on the Korean inheritance law. 

Inheritance law is a complicated area of law in South Korea.  Thus, It is a good idea to seek legal advice from a Korean inheritance lawyer before handing over a legal document.

If you have any question about this article, please visit our Legal Consultation center or send your inquiry email by clicking here.  Our Korean licensed lawyer will answer your inquiry.

Also you can find more articles and court cases on the Korean inheritance law and practice by clicking here.

© Wonil Chung, Korean Licensed Lawyer.  All rights reserved.

18 Comments

  1. Are grandchildren equal in status as heirs as children?
    based on this line “If there are multiple persons standing in the same rank, the closest in the degree of relationship shall have the priority.” It sounds like children would have priority over grandchildren.

      1. Thanks for your reply.
        In that case. if a person passed away, and his inheritance would be split between 2 children. However one of those children had already died, would the dead child’s children inherit that share, or would the entire estate be inherited by the surviving child?

  2. I have two questions:

    1) Using the example given in the article above, does the fact the children are still minors affect the inheritance?

    2) Again using the above example, is the marital property divided prior to inheritance and if so how is it split? For example does the surviving spouse first get 50% of the martial property and then 3/7 of the remaining 50% or only 3/7 of the total martial property?

    1. 1) No
      2) Marital property is a concept used mostly in a divorce case, not inheritance case. Surviving spouse’s entitlement is 3/7 of the estate.

  3. Hello, I was adopted to a family in America. My birth Father is a businessman in Seoul and my birth Mother is married to a businessman/entrepreneur. We have all recently reconnected but I wonder if I am entitled to any inheritance under Korean Law. My birth Father has a boy and girl and my birth Mother never had any other children. I am more focused on building our relationship right now but just curious if I should expect anything or travel to Korea or hire a lawyer should someone pass away. I would never have the courage to ask them outright since I was raised by my adopted parents to never discuss money because it’s gauche. I don’t follow that advice with my own children but am relegated to begging for help on message boards because I don’t have any Korean friends who I can ask.
    Thanks in advance for any help you may provide!

    1. Hello
      Thanks for contacting our office.
      It depends on whether your adoption was a simple adoption or a full adoption. If it was a simple adoption which doesn’t cut the original parentage, you are entitled to the inheritance.
      Please find an article on our previous case which could be similar to your situation: https://askkorealaw.com/2018/12/17/adoptee-inheritance/
      Hope this is of any assistance.

  4. Hello,

    I am a foreigner who studies law in Europe. I have been dating a Korean citizen for quite some time and I worry about her future after her father dies.

    While her father is not in immediate danger I am concerned that he may be contracting debts right now without the knowledge of his family. He is in a very dark place and has stopped earning a revenue.

    I would like to know who will inherit his debts after his passing and how my girlfriend and her mother, still married to the husband, can avoid paying these debts.

    Thank you very much for your help.

    1. Hello
      Your girlfriend and her mother will inherit his debts, too. They can choose to renounce their inheritance to avoid the liability after he passes away.
      Hope this is of assistance to you.

  5. This has happened a long time ago and came into surface recently. MY grandmother had some assets under her name and had no will when she passed away. so then my grandma’s sister forced my grandfather when he was drunk to sign a contract (which he wasn’t really sure about) that says that he will give up his share of the inheritance. However, my grandma has four kids, including my mum and they weren’t aware of any of this. They did not sign anything and this was already more than 15 years ago. MY grandfather passed away about 10 years ago and my mum and my aunts did not receive anything. is it possible for my grandaunt to take all that away with just my grandfather’s signature? is there nothing my mum and my aunts have a say? can we open a case for this now?

    1. Thanks for contacting our office. We had replied to your inquiry by an email. Please let us know if you have further questions.

  6. this is an interesting article.

    if husband has debt with bank does his estate pay back debts on bank loans before guarantor of the loan??? or does debt move direct to guarantor?

    1. The inheritance law does not provide nor change the priority. It is all down to the matter whether the guarantor agreement and related clauses in Civil Code recognize such priority.

  7. My father and mother married while they lived in Korea years ago. As they moved to Brazil, they recognized their marriage in Brazil as well. foe=r some 30 years, my father has been living in Southe Korea, while my mother and my 2 sisters continued living in Brazil. 3 months ago, my mother deceased, leaving no will. I traveled to Korea some 3 years ago, and discovered my father had many estates worth some good money, I wanted to know, if I have any rights over the properties that were from my father and mother (since they never divorced). My mother´s death has beed directed to the korean consulate in Brazil 1 and a half months ago. I´d like to say that I, and all my sisters are in the family tree docs in Korea. Thanks in advance.

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