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On the right to inheritance

Case No. 17/2000

 

THE CONSTITUTIONAL COURT OF THE REPUBLIC OF LITHUANIA

RULING

ON THE COMPLIANCE OF ARTICLE 573 OF THE CIVIL CODE OF THE REPUBLIC OF LITHUANIA (WORDING OF 17 MAY 1994) WITH THE CONSTITUTION OF THE REPUBLIC OF LITHUANIA

 

4 March 2002

Vilnius

 

The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania, composed of the Justices of the Constitutional Court: Egidijus Jarašiūnas, Egidijus Kūris, Zigmas Levickis, Augustinas Normantas, Vladas Pavilonis, Jonas Prapiestis, Vytautas Sinkevičius, Stasys Stačiokas, and Teodora Staugaitienė

The court reporter—Daiva Pitrėnaitė

Darius Karvelis, a senior consultant of the Legal Department of the Office of the Seimas, acting as the representative of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, the party concerned

The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania, pursuant to Paragraph 1 of Article 102 of the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania and Paragraph 1 of Article 1 of the Law on the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania, on 21 February 2002, in its public hearing, considered case No. 17/2000 subsequent to the petition of the Panevėžys City Local Court, the petitioner, requesting an investigation into whether Article 573 of the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania (wording of 17 May 1994) was in compliance with Articles 23, 29 and 59 of the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania.

The Constitutional Court

has established:

I

The petitioner, the Panevėžys City Local Court, was considering a civil case. By means of its ruling of 28 March 2000, the said court suspended the consideration of the case and applied to the Constitutional Court with a petition requesting an investigation into whether Items 1 and 2 of Paragraph 1 of Article 573 of the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania (wording of 17 May 1994; Official Gazette Valstybės žinios, 1994, No. 44-805) (hereinafter also referred to as the CC) were in compliance with Articles 23, 29 and 59 of the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania.

II

The petition of the petitioner is based on the following arguments.

Article 52 of the Constitution establishes the right of citizens to social assistance in the event of unemployment, sickness, widowhood, loss of breadwinner, and other cases provided by law. The constitutional provision obligates the state not to worsen the material situation of socially unprotected individuals as well as invalid dependants, meanwhile, on 17 May 1994, after Article 573 of the CC had been amended, this situation was made worse.

Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) provides for unequal opportunities to inherit the property of a deceased for the invalid dependants who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death. In case of the absence of a will of the deceased, the said persons were deprived of an opportunity to be successors together with the heirs of the first order of succession, while in case of a testamentary succession, they are entitled to the obligatory portion of the inheritance. Thus, the opportunities of succession depend not on the status of individuals but other circumstances. In the opinion of the petitioner, the presence of a testament may not have any impact on an opportunity for the invalid heirs and dependants to inherit property. Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) provides for unequal opportunities for individuals to inherit property since the right to succession of invalid dependants depends on a manner of succession.

Due to this fact, the petitioner doubts whether Items 1 and 2 of Paragraph 1 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) are in compliance with Articles 23, 29 and 52 of the Constitution.

III

In the course of the preparation of the case for the judicial consideration, written explanations were received from the representative of the party concerned, the Seimas, who is V. Stankevičius, a senior consultant of the Legal Department of the Office of the Seimas.

1. The representative of the party concerned pointed out that the Constitution does not regulate the relations of succession. They are regulated by law. The determination of the legislature to amend the provisions of Article 573 of the CC should be linked with the adoption of the Constitution. In his opinion, after the Constitution had been adopted, the legal regulation of ownership and family relations became essentially different.

2. Paragraph 1 of Article 46 of the Constitution provides for the priority of private ownership, while Paragraph 1 of Article 23 thereof guarantees inviolability of property. Under Paragraph 1 of Article 38 of the Constitution, the family shall be the basis of society and the state. The family and the ownership are entrenched in the Constitution as the most important values of the society. It is established in Paragraph 2 of Article 23 of the Constitution that the rights of ownership shall be protected by law, therefore, the representative of the party concerned is of the opinion that the legal norms regulating succession ought to serve for the protection of private ownership, to stimulate augmentation of property and ensure continuance of ownership. Lithuania’s economy shall be based on the right to private ownership (Paragraph 1 of Article 46 of the Constitution), therefore, the preservation and fostering of private ownership is of utmost importance for society. In the opinion of the representative of the party concerned, in case of legal succession, the heirs’ order of succession is determined not by the person who left his/her property but by the legislature. The legislature, while taking account of the said provisions of the Constitution, held the most suitable heirs capable of continuing the legal relations of ownership of the deceased to be his/her children (adopted children), spouse, parents (foster parents), who, under Item 1 of Paragraph 1 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994), were in the first order of succession.

3. The legislature, after it had established in Item 1 of Paragraph 1 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) that the spouse, the children (adopted children), the parents (foster parents) are the heirs of the first order of succession, attempted to strengthen family relations. The implementation of the provision of the Constitution that the family shall be the basis of society and the state ought to be related to legal regulation of not only family relations but also those of succession and other relations. The provisions of Item 1 of Paragraph 1 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) grant the same opportunities for the spouse, the children (adopted children), the parents (foster parents) to legal succession. Such regulation of succession concerning the aforementioned family members strengthens their mutual relations.

4. The representative of the party concerned maintains that it is impossible to relate the social guarantees of the state provided for in Article 52 of the Constitution to the legal relations of succession. In his opinion, Items 1 and 2 of Paragraph 1 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) are in compliance with Articles 23, 29 and 59 of the Constitution.

IV

In the course of the preparation of the case for the Constitutional Court hearing, explanations from Assoc. Prof. Dr. P. Miškinis who works at the Civil and Commercial Law Department, the Law University of Lithuania, were received.

V

At the Constitutional Court hearing, the representative of the party concerned D. Karvelis virtually reiterated the arguments set down in the written explanations by the representative of the party concerned V. Stankevičius.

The Constitutional Court

holds that:

1. On 17 May 1994, by means of the Republic of Lithuania’s Law “On the Amendment and Supplement of the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania”, the Seimas amended Article 573 of the same code and set it forth as follows:

Legal Heirs

In case of legal succession, the heirs succeeding to equal portions shall be the following:

1) the children (including the adopted children) of the deceased, his/her spouse and parents (adopted parents) shall be in the first order of succession. A child of the deceased who is born after the death of the latter shall also be categorised as belonging to the heirs of the first order of succession.

2) the grandparents of the deceased both from the paternal and the maternal line, the grandchildren of the deceased, as well as the invalid persons who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death shall be in the second order of succession. If the heirs of the second order of succession are dependants only, they shall succeed together and by equal portions with the heirs of the third, fourth or the fifth order of succession who are called to succession.

3) the brothers and sisters of the deceased, his/her great-grandchildren, as well as great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers from the paternal and the maternal line shall be in the third order of succession;

4) the children of the brother or sister of the deceased (his/her nephews and nieces), as well as the brothers and sisters of the father and the mother of the deceased (his/her uncles and aunts) from the paternal and maternal line shall be in the fourth order of succession;

5) the children of brothers and sisters of the father and the mother of the deceased (his/her cousins) from the paternal and maternal line shall be in the fifth order of succession.

The heirs of the second order of succession are called to legal succession only in case of the absence of the heirs of the first order of succession and also if the latter did not accept or waived it, as well as in cases when the right to succession has been deprived of all the heirs of the first order of succession (Articles 572 and 575).

The heirs of the third order of succession are called to legal succession only in the absence of the heirs of the second order of succession, the heirs of the fourth order of succession—only in the absence of the heirs or the third order of succession, and the heirs of the fifth order of succession—only in the absence of the heirs of the fourth order of succession.

The grandchildren and great-grandchildren, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, the nephews, nieces and cousins of the deceased shall succeed to the portion which would have belonged to a deceased heir of a corresponding order of succession called to legal succession. The adopted children and their descendants, when they succeed to property after the death of their foster father (foster mother) or their relatives, shall be equalled to the children and their descendants of the foster parents. They shall not be entitled to legal succession after the death of their parents and other relatives of the first line according to kindred, as well as after the death of their sisters according to kindred.

The foster parents and their relatives, when they succeed to property after the death of the adopted child or his descendants, shall be equalled to the parents or their other relatives according to kindred. The parents of the adopted child and their other relatives of the first line according to kindred shall not be entitled to legal succession after the death of the adopted child or his descendants.”

2. The petitioner doubts whether Items 1 and 2 of Paragraph 1 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) are in compliance with Articles 23, 29 and 52 of the Constitution since the invalid individuals who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death lost the right enjoyed according to Paragraph 3 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 7 July 1964) to legal succession by equal portions together with the heirs of the first order of succession.

3. On 18 July 2000, the Seimas enacted the Republic of Lithuania’s Law on the Approval, Entry into Force and Enforcement of the Civil Code. Upon the entry into force of the new Civil Code on 1 July 2001, the formerly valid Civil Code, thus, Article 573 thereof as well, became no longer valid. The Constitutional Court has been addressed by the Panevėžys City Local Court which had doubts as to the constitutionality of Items 1 and 2 of Paragraph 1 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) when the said court was considering a civil case. The latter suspended the consideration of the civil case until the decision of the Constitutional Court concerning the compliance of Items 1 and 2 of Paragraph 1 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) with the Constitution.

Under Paragraph 4 of Article 69 of the Law on the Constitutional Court, the annulment of a disputable legal act shall be grounds to adopt a decision to dismiss the initiated legal proceedings. The formula “shall be grounds to adopt a decision to dismiss the initiated legal proceedings” should be construed as establishing the right of the Constitutional Court to dismiss the initiated legal proceedings while taking account of the circumstances of the case under investigation, but not as establishing that in every case when the impugned legal act is annulled the initiated legal proceedings should be dismissed (the Constitutional Court’s ruling of 5 April 2000).

The Panevėžys City Local Court has applied with a petition to the Constitutional Court, requesting an investigation into whether the impugned provision (even though it had been annulled) was in compliance with the Constitution. It needs to be noted that if the Constitutional Court did not decide this question in essence, the doubts of the aforesaid court concerning the constitutionality of the legal act would not be removed. If the doubts concerning the constitutionality of the legal act applicable in the above-mentioned case were not removed and if the said act were applied, the rights of the individual in the course of the consideration of the aforementioned civil case might be infringed.

4. Subsequent to the petition of the petitioner, the Constitutional Court will consider whether Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) to the extent that it did not provide that the invalid individuals who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death were entitled to legal succession together with the heirs of the first order of succession was in compliance with Articles 23, 29 and 52 of the Constitution.

5. In the course of the determination of the compliance of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994), one must ascertain the constitutional meaning of the institution of succession.

Article 23 of the Constitution establishes inviolability of property and protection of the rights of ownership. These provisions of the Constitution also mean that the owner has the right to state in his will to whom his property will be left after his death, while in cases when such a will has not been stated, he has the right that after his death his property will be inherited by the heirs established by law.

In the course of the systemic construction of the provisions of Article 23 of the Constitution, in the context of the entire constitutional regulation, and especially of the constitutional provisions establishing that the family is the basis of society and the state and providing for a duty of the state to take care of the family, motherhood, fatherhood, and childhood, as well as the right and duty of parents to support their children until they come of age, and the duty of children to respect their parents, to care for them in old age, and to preserve their heritage (Paragraphs 1, 2, 6 and 7 of Article 38 of the Constitution), a duty of the state to protected children who are under age by law (Paragraph 3 of Article 39 of the Constitution), also the provisions establishing the constitutional rights of individuals and their inborn nature (Article 18 of the Constitution) etc., it should be held that the institution of succession stems from the Constitution. The Constitution guarantees the right to succession.

Under the Constitution, the relations of succession must be regulated by law only. The legislature, while regulating these relations, must observe the principles and norms of the Constitution. This means, inter alia, that there may not be any established legal regulation which, on the one hand, might deny the will of a testator to leave his property as inheritance to other persons, and, which, on the other hand, in the absence of a testament of a deceased, would give priority to other persons but not those related to the deceased by family relations, those of parents and children, which are established in the Constitution. It needs to be noted that the legislature, while regulating the relations of succession, must ensure a balance between the right of an individual to leave his property to other persons on the one part, and the other values protected by the Constitution on the other part.

6. Under Paragraph 3 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 7 July 1964), among the heirs who had the right to legal succession, there were also the invalid individuals who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death. They had the right to succession together with the called heirs of corresponding order (including the first order) of succession. Thus, the support of the said invalid individuals determined the fact that the said invalid dependants had the right to succession to a portion of inheritance of the individual who had supported them. Such invalid dependants enjoyed the same right even in cases when no property would be left to them by testament: under Paragraph 1 of Article 576 of the CC (the legal regulation established therein remained the same also after Article 573 of the CC had been amended on 17 May 1994) they had the right to succession to the obligatory portion of the inheritance irrespective of the content of the testament. The aforesaid invalid dependants of the testator enjoyed the right to succession together with the called heirs of the first or another order of succession irrespective of the fact whether they were children (adopted children) of the deceased, or his/her spouse, or parents (foster-parents) or whether they were not related to the deceased by family relations or those of parents and children. Such persons had the right to succession irrespective of the fact on what basis the relations of support had been grounded. Thus, the right of the invalid dependants to succession, who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death but who were not his/her children (adopted children), spouse, parents (foster-parents), together with the called heirs of the first or another order of succession limited the right of the children (adopted children), spouse, parents (foster parents) to succession to the property of the deceased.

Under Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994), the invalid individuals who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death were categorised as belonging to the heirs of the second order of succession. The invalid dependants had the right to legal succession only in the absence of the heirs of the first order of succession and also if the latter did not accept the legacy or waived it, as well as in cases when all the heirs of the first order of succession were deprived of the right to succession (Articles 572 and 575). Thus, under Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994), the invalid dependants already did not enjoy the right to succession together with the heirs of the first order of succession.

7. Article 23 of the Constitution provides:

Property shall be inviolable.

The rights of ownership shall be protected by law.

Property may only be seized for the needs of society according to the procedure established by law and must be adequately compensated for.”

It has already been held in this ruling of the Constitutional Court that the Constitution guarantees the right to succession. Article 23 of the Constitution establishes the right of the owner to leave his property as inheritance. The provisions of Paragraph 1 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994), which are pointed out by the petitioner, virtually mean that in case of the absence of a stated will of a deceased, the invalid dependants who are not related to the deceased by family relations, those of parents and children, have no priority over the individuals related to the deceased by the said relations, i.e. those of the children (adopted children), spouse, parents (foster-parents). In itself the fact that the deceased had supported an invalid individual does not imply the right of the said invalid individual to succession of the property of the deceased.

On the grounds of the arguments set forth, the conclusion should be drawn that Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) to the extent that it did not provide that the invalid individuals who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death were entitled to legal succession together with the heirs of the first order of succession was in compliance with Article 23 of the Constitution.

8. Article 29 of the Constitution provides:

All persons shall be equal before the law, the court, and other State institutions and officers.

A person may not have his rights restricted in any way, or be granted any privileges, on the basis of his or her sex, race, nationality, language, origin, social status, religion, convictions, or opinions.”

These provisions of the Constitution consolidate the principle of the equality of all persons. This principle must be observed when passing and applying laws, as well as administering justice. This principle obligates one to apply a uniform legal assessment to homogeneous facts and prohibits against any arbitrary assessment of essentially homogeneous facts (the Constitutional Court’s ruling of 24 January 1996). This is a principle of a formal legal equality. The Constitutional Court has held in its rulings many a time that this constitutional principle does not deny the fact that the law may establish different legal regulation in respect to certain categories of persons that are in different situations. Therefore, the legislature, while regulating the relations of succession, may differentiate this regulation according to what family or kinship relations certain persons were related with the deceased.

It has been mentioned that there may not be any established legal regulation which, on the one hand, might deny the will of a testator to leave his property as inheritance to other persons, and, which, on the other hand, in the absence of a testament of a deceased, would give priority to other persons but not those related to the deceased by family relations, those of parents and children, which are established in the Constitution. In itself the circumstance that the deceased had supported an invalid individual does not constitute grounds to establish by law that the invalid dependant has the right to legal succession together with the heirs of the first order of succession.

On the grounds of the arguments set forth, the conclusion should be drawn that Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) to the extent that it did not provide that the invalid individuals who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death were entitled to legal succession together with the heirs of the first order of succession was in compliance with Article 29 of the Constitution.

9. Article 52 of the Constitution provides: “The State shall guarantee the right of citizens to old age and disability pension, as well as to social assistance in the event of unemployment, sickness, widowhood, loss of breadwinner, and other cases provided by law.”

It needs to be noted that the duty of the state to guarantee the right to social assistance for individuals who need it is established in Article 52 of the Constitution, meanwhile, Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) regulated relations of succession but not those of the right to social assistance guaranteed by the state.

Taking account of the fact that Article 52 of the Constitution regulates different relations than those of Item 1 of Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994), it should be concluded that Article 573 of the CC (wording of 17 May 1994) to the extent that it did not provide that the invalid individuals who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death were entitled to legal succession together with the heirs of the first order of succession was in compliance with Article 52 of the Constitution.

Conforming to Article 102 of the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania and Articles 53, 54, 55 and 56 of the Law on the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania, the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania gives the following

ruling:

To recognise that Article 573 of the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania (wording of 17 May 1994) to the extent that it did not provide that the invalid individuals who had been supported by the deceased for not less than one year prior to his/her death were entitled to legal succession together with the heirs of the first order of succession was in compliance with the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania.

This ruling of the Constitutional Court is final and not subject to appeal.

The ruling is pronounced in the name of the Republic of Lithuania.

Justices of the Constitutional Court:                                                  Egidijus Jarašiūnas

Egidijus Kūris

Zigmas Levickis

Augustinas Normantas

Vladas Pavilonis

Jonas Prapiestis

Vytautas Sinkevičius

Stasys Stačiokas

Teodora Staugaitienė