top of page

Settling Estates in France

Missing wills, a bald-faced lie, broken bones, a painting by an Italian master. These are all part of my experience of settling two estates in France. Not bad for a kid who was born in New York City and was only distantly related to the two women who died.

Prologue. My paternal great-grandparents (Victor Cune and Celeste Sainte-Ange Dauban) produced five daughters and no sons. Only two of the Cune daughters have living descendants in 2024, 15 of them live in the USA and only three live in France. It’s a sad and unlikely outcome for Victor and Celeste who must have expected to have more than a dozen grandchildren and an ever-growing progeny.

The 15 living descendants in the USA consist of: myself, my two sons, and the two children that each of these sons has produced; my older brother, his three daughters, and the three children of one of these daughters; and my younger brother, unmarried and with no children. We are descendants of Jeanne Cune.

Our three distant cousins still living in France are descendants of Marthe Cune: an adopted son of Monique de la Gontrie and his daughter and son. The second estate I settled was that of Monique de la Gontrie, who died in 2013.

The first estate I settled was that of a descendant of Marie Cune: Juliette Bouygues, who had no children and died in 1992.

Marcelle Cune died in childhood. Charlotte Cune never married.

More information about these ancestors is provided in the Annex at the end of this story.

Jean Louis Charles Dauban and his wife, parents of Celeste Sainte-Ange Dauban

who married Victor Cune and bore five daughters

Settling the Estate of Tante Juliette Bouygues

Tante (Aunt) Juliette Bouygues led a distinguished life as a voice teacher and one of the most sought-after experts in dubbing the French dialog for English-language movies.

Juliette was a fascinating character whom my family got to know when we lived in Paris from mid-1984 to mid-1986. She had a small apartment at 52 Boulevard Saint-Germain, a popular Left Bank neighborhood in Paris. Her banker husband died before we met her, but my father had visited her regularly in the years after World War II. The teas she served us in her elegantly furnished apartment were as classic as any I’ve seen in the movies. She died in 1992.

52 Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris, home of Juliette Bouygues

Settling Juliette’s estate was complicated for two reasons. First, she died without having a will that anyone could find. Second, my father should have done the work of settling the estate, but he died in 1994 before the settlement process had advanced significantly. My father also created a fantastic complication before he died. The matter fell into my lap because I spoke better French than either of my two brothers and because my work put me in Europe at least once a year.

While Juliette had no children, she did have a nephew, Roger Bouygues. By prior arrangement, both my father and Roger were immediately notified upon Juliette’s death. After being unable to find a will, they readily agreed to collaborate in settling Juliette’s relatively small estate. To begin with, they agreed that Roger would pay the utility bills until the estate was settled and my father would pay the monthly rent (her apartment was in a building owned by the University of Paris).

The mistake my father made was arranging with a lawyer he knew in Guadeloupe (French West Indies) to pay this monthly rent. My father had used the lawyer in connection with the purchase of a plot of land on the island of St. Barthelemy (aka St. Barts) and the construction of a small house on it. Not long after agreeing to pay the rent, my father got a message from Roger reporting that the contents of Juliette’s apartment were being auctioned off to reimburse the U of Paris for the rents the lawyer in Guadeloupe had failed to pay. Sadly, Roger had to purchase at auction the few heirlooms from his aunt that he had expected to inherit in the settlement of her estate.

When a person in France dies without a will, the French government selects a genealogy specialist to establish the proper heirs. In Juliette’s case, they selected the Archives Généalogiques Andriveau. This firm quickly established that my father and his sister were the closest living relatives of Juliette, but the protocol required that their existence be verified in direct interviews.

A representative of the Andriveau firm flew to California to interview my father at his primary residence in Santa Barbara. As told to me by my stepmother, when this man asked my father for help in contacting his sister, Mireille Gale, my father said that he had no idea where this sister was living or if she was still alive. That was a bald-faced lie. Our Tante Mireille was living in Berkeley CA, on the edge of the UC/Berkeley campus, about 200 meters from my older brother’s office in the math department building, and even closer to the Faculty Club where Mireille and my brother regularly met over lunch. My father and his sister had gotten to dislike each other so much that she gave her collection of their father’s papers to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and my father gave his collection to the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Shortly after the visit of the Andriveau representative, my father died. About a year later his sister Tante Mireille died. Without a will!!

Juliette’s estate (after losing her apartment and its contents) consisted of stocks and bonds that were placed in an account at a special French state financial institution, Caisse des Depots et Consignations. As the sole representative of Juliette’s heirs, I thought that I should have some say in the management of these funds, but that was not to be under the very strict French inheritance regime. The settlement process was not completed until 1998, six years after Juliette’s death. Understanding the settlement process and extracting information from the various institutions involved in the process gave me many headaches and anxious moments.

I don’t remember how much money was lost over these six years to the inheritance tax and to questionable fund management by the Caisse. The eventual heirs of the estate were my stepmother getting my father’s half of what was left, and myself and my two brothers getting his sister’s half under the California law for settling estates in the absence of a will. Together we ended up with about Euro 100,000 in a French bank.

Why not use the money to fund the travel of all Rieffel relatives in the USA to attend a family reunion at the ancestral Cune family country home in Normandy?

Yes, we pulled it off in the summer of 1999, on the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. Sixteen of us! Presiding over this extraordinary occasion was our cousin Monique de la Gontrie. My wife produced a tapestry to memorialize this reunion, inspired by the famous Bayeux tapestry.

Tapestry made by Alaire Rieffel to memorialize the Rieffel family reunion in 1999

Settling the Estate of Monique de la Gontrie

As explained in the Annex, Monique was raised by her grandmother who lived in a nice apartment in Paris behind Montmartre and spent the summer months at the country house in Normandy built by her great-grandparents. Monique led a life of privilege because her father, Pierre de la Gontrie, went into politics after being a leader of the French resistance in World War II and becoming a member of the French Senate from 1948 to 1968, representing the region of Savoie in the French Alps. He was also elected to local offices in the city of Chambery and deeply involved in the development of the nearby and well-known ski resort of Courchevel. Monique inherited his chalet close to the main ski lift in Courchevel and my family had week-long stays in this chalet during the two winters we lived in Paris.

Monique studied to be an anesthesiologist and practiced this profession for many years in the clinic of a surgeon famous for doing knee reconstruction for athletes.

I saw little of Monique on my first visit to France in the summer of 1953 (age 12), but we had a memorable stay at the ancestral country house in the tiny village of Condé-sur-Seulles, midway between Caen and Bayeux in Normandy, presided over by her charming and very elegant grandmother, Danielle Lavalley. Thus began my sentimental attachment to this place.

In 1961, Monique helped me buy the bicycle that I rode across Southern France after my sophomore year in college. This trip started in Bonn, Germany, at the home of a German exchange student at my prep school, and finished up in Hossegor on the Atlantic Coast, close to Biarritz and the Spanish border, where Monique’s father owned a summer villa.

In October 1969, I married Alaire Bretz in Copperhill TN. We started our honeymoon by taking an Icelandic Air flight to Brussels and proceeded from there directly to Paris by train so that I could introduce Alaire to Monique. She welcomed us by taking us to the famous burlesque show at the Lido on the Champs-Elysees.

Between 1975 and 1984, I made an average of two trips to Paris every year for work related to my job as an economist in the US Treasury Department. I visited with Monique on most of these occasions and occasionally saw her adopted son Guillaume in her apartment in the fashionable 16th arrondissement.

Luckily, in 1984, I was able to convince my superiors in the Treasury Department to send me and my family to Paris where I became the junior Treasury representative on the staff of the US Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The plan was to spend three years there, but the tour was cut short when it became clear that my mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. My brothers agreed that the most sensible arrangement was to move her from her garden apartment on Long Island, New York, to the basement apartment of our large row house in Washington DC.

My family spent two terrific years in France and our connection to Monique and her friends contributed greatly to the experience. Most memorable were our two week-long ski vacations at her chalet in Courchevel. There were also regular visits to the ancestral country house in Normandy, livened by games of ping pong and boules, visits to the nearby D-Day beaches, and home-made hard cider. We saw very little of Guillaume during those years because he was doing service in the French army.

The ancestral country house in Normandy, built in 1850

From 1986 until I “retired” in 2001, I must have visited Monique in Paris about once a year on the way to a meeting somewhere in Europe. The biggest event in this period was the family reunion in 1999 at the ancestral country house in Condé. All travel costs from the USA were paid out of the estate of Juliette Bouygues, as noted above.

Monique retired around 2000, sold her home in Paris and settled in Condé. It must have been around 2003 that Monique told me that she did not want any of her material (nonfinancial) possessions to be inherited by her adopted son, Guillaume. Instead, she viewed me and my brothers and our children as the proper heirs of her house and land and she was making me the Executor of her estate. She gave me a copy of her will.

Under the circumstances, I could not graciously decline this role, but this made my relationship with Monique primarily transactional and less sentimental. At the heart of this sad part of the Cune family history was evidence that Monique had ignored many of the basic rules of good parenting. It seems that she tried to mold Guillaume into her vision of member of the French elite. When he failed to meet her expectations, her treatment appeared to have the effect of undermining his self-esteem and his motivation. With no chance of academic success after finishing high school, Monique forced Guillaume to enlist in the Army. This did have the positive effect of his acquiring a decent amount of self-confidence and a marketable skill in electronics.

After maybe four years in the Army, Guillaume was able to get a good job with a company maintaining printing machines. He started as a mechanic doing onsite repairs but within a few years graduated to an office job where he backstopped a team of mechanics, helping them resolve problems that they were unable to solve by themselves.

The most unfortunate part of Guillaume’s army experience is that he met and married a Portuguese woman and soon thereafter she gave birth to their first child, a daughter. I have to say that Monique had racist views. She didn’t like Asians and she considered Portuguese people to be inferior. This marriage and pregnancy were too much for her and led directly to her cutting ties with Guillaume and focusing on the Rieffel family in the USA.

Between 2003 and 2013, I visited Monique in Condé three or four times. She had a very active life in retirement. She raised donkeys. She made cider from the apples in her orchard and cured it in two huge barrels in her “cave”. She built an international standard croquet court in an old farm complex she had renovated and hosted croquet clubs from France and the UK. She amassed a huge collection of “Bayeux porcelain” purchased at auctions. She had plenty of good friends living nearby and others visiting from elsewhere in France.

In 2010, Monique did something else quite exceptional. Among the heirlooms in her house were some valuable musical instruments, furniture, and artwork. She sold them through an auction house in Bayeux. From memory, the most valuable single item was a violin bow that sold at auction for more than Euro 50,000. She then disbursed the proceeds to her five Rieffel “grandchildren”, my two sons and my older brother’s three daughters. The money each of them received was substantial. A major complication, however, is that these gifts were not made in accordance with French law and as a result the aggregate value of the gifts was included in the value of the estate subject to the inheritance tax when it was settled.

Monique also had a crazy streak. In particular, she developed a gall bladder problem that became serious around 2005 and refused to have it treated. On three occasions starting around 2009, she fainted from a gall stone attack while driving her car. On the first occasion, she ran off the road near the train station in Bayeux, only damaging her car and a pole. On the second occasion, her car ended up on a sidewalk in the town of Port-en-Bessin, luckily avoiding any pedestrians. On the third occasion, in mid-2012, she plowed into a stone wall at high speed on the way back to Condé from Bayeux. She didn’t like to wear a seat belt and the result was a left leg fractured in three places. She was taken to the hospital in Bayeux and spent several months there before being moved to a convalescent home nearby. In the process, I was told by her friends, she managed to alienate the staffs in both places by constantly accusing them of being incompetent.

One summer day in 2012, I received a phone call from Monique’s best friends, an elderly couple living in an adjacent village. They told me that Monique wanted me to come to France immediately to take possession of an object in her house. Having no binding family or work obligations at that point, I was in Condé within a week of the call. Familiar with her way of dealing with the world, I wasn’t surprised that Monique refused to let me visit her in the convalescent home. The object she wanted me to take was a painting of the angel Gabriel (or Gabrielle). She didn’t want the painting to be in her house when she died because she believed it was the work of the Italian Renaissance master Guido Reni and worth as much as Euro 1 million. She didn’t want her heirs to have to pay the inheritance tax on such a valuable possession. As requested, I made the painting “disappear”. What happened next is a great story to be told at another time.

On 1 April 2013, I received phone calls from two of Monique’s friends announcing her death that day. My wife and I were on the next plane to France, having expected the call.

At this point in the story, it is necessary to describe the inheritance process in France, because it is different from the process in the USA and many other countries in some fascinating ways.

--The French inheritance process is based on the centuries-old Napoleonic Code. Importantly, parents cannot disinherit their children. The children have a right to inherit one half of their parent’s estate. It is nearly impossible to escape this requirement.

--The key person in the inheritance process is the “notaire”, not to be confused with a “notary” in the USA. The notaire is a licensed lawyer employed by the government to process crucial transactions, in particular real estate sales and inheritances.

--In the case of inheritances, people of means select a notaire and deposit the original of their will (testament) with this official. What’s special is that the notaire has a contradictory mandate from the government: (1) to make sure that the state receives all of the inheritance tax to which it is entitled, and (2) simultaneously to make sure that the heirs pay the smallest possible inheritance tax. There is no clearer example of a conflict of interests that I have encountered in my life. In the case of families of means, a close relationship develops over years with the notaire they have selected so that when a death occurs the family’s interests are in large part protected.

In addition to the country house and a small caretaker’s house behind it, Monique owned some 30 hectares (60 acres) of land, mostly leased to farmers. She had the value of her property appraised by a state-licensed Appraiser who happened to be a friend of both Monique and her notaire. Monique then made sure that she kept in several bank and brokerage accounts an equal amount of financial assets. In her will, the house and property were to go to me for the benefit of the extended Rieffel family in the USA and the financial assets were to go to her adopted son Guillaume.

Within 24 hours of arriving in Condé after Monique’s death, I had viewed her body, selected a coffin, and made arrangements to have her buried in the graveyard of the little church in Condé.

Monique’s grave at the village church in Condé-sur-Seulles

The next day I drove to the office of Maitre Noir, the notaire selected by Monique, who lived in the town of Balleroy 30 minutes from Condé. Maitre Noir read Monique’s will, which was unchanged from the copy I had been given years before. Then he picked up the phone and called Guillaume.

Guillaume had not seen his mother in 25 years. He did not know she had had a terrible car accident and been hospitalized. He did not know she had died. He did not know she was bequeathing her property to her distant cousins in America. In the meantime, his wife had divorced him, and he was unemployed after losing his job in a reorganization of his printer maintenance company. He had become obese and to solve the problem had gotten the “belt” operation on his stomach that makes a person lose their appetite after eating a small amount of food.

A week after the shocking phone call from Maitre Noir, Guillaume came to the notaire’s office to begin settling the estate. The inescapable problem for me was a 60 percent inheritance tax on my portion of the estate—because I am a nonresident of France. I couldn’t possibly pay this tax on my half of the estate, which had been appraised at well north of Euro 1 million. By contrast, the inheritance tax on Guillaume’s portion would be around 20 percent and he had the option of paying it over a period of 10 years or more at a nominal rate of interest.

In my first encounter with Guillaume in Maitre Noir’s office, he was remarkably cordial and thoughtful. He did, however, have an extremely negative view of his mother. He made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with her burial in Condé. And he did have one legitimate grievance. After deciding that she never wanted to see him again, Monique proceeded to burn every book, every toy, and every scrap of paper associated with him. Items of keen sentimental interest to him were gone forever. When I left this first meeting, I had the feeling that Guillaume might not have any interest in the Condé property.

Guillaume came to Condé a few days later to join me in undertaking a crucial part of the estate settlement process in France: emptying the house of anything that would add significantly to the taxable value of the estate.

To his credit, Guillaume’s understandable and overt resentment of the situation faded remarkably quickly. In our third or fourth encounter following Monique’s death, he told me that he would like to become the owner of the Condé property if the American Rieffels did not want to take it over.

Neither of my brothers nor their children exhibited the slightest interest in owning the property for some obvious reasons. The house was barely habitable. My wife described it as a “dust museum”. There was not a single modern bathroom in this 15-room, 3-story house. The roof leaked. There was no insulation to speak of, making it very expensive to heat in winter. Other reasons they had were not speaking French, the trans-Atlantic travel required, and not finding Normandy a particularly attractive part of France.

Fortunately, Maitre Noir had little difficulty in reversing the disposition of Monique’s estate: Guillaume got the property, and I got the money. During this process Maitre Noir retired and sold his business to Maitre LeClerc. The transition was seamless and she was a delight to work with.

Under French law, estates must be settled and the inheritance tax paid within six months of death. We met this deadline with astonishingly few physical or emotional bruises.

Epilogue. Guillaume remained in his primary residence outside of Paris for 5-6 years following the settlement, spending long summers in Condé. He sold his apartment and settled permanently in the ancestral house around 2019. I have visited Condé about once a year after the settlement, partly to encourage Guillaume to develop and implement a strategy for making the house more livable. He has succeeded in getting the roof repaired and in replacing all the windows with double-pane sashes. But the renovation has advanced at a glacial pace.

Guillaume has also been generous in letting me have a few heirlooms from the house. In particular, I had Fedex ship to me in Washington DC a portrait of my great-grandmother Celeste Sainte-Ange Dauban, painted by her brother. The frame was damaged in transit and remarkably Fedex paid my claim in full. The amount I got largely covered the cost of having the frame repaired at the Clarke Museum and Conservation Center in Williamstown, MA.

Celeste Saint-Ange Dauban


One of my paternal great-great-grandfathers was Jean Louis Charles Dauban, born in 1790 in Paris, but orphaned and raised by the state. He supported the King in the July Revolution in 1830 and was rewarded by becoming head of the Ecoles des Arts and Métiers in Angers. Around 1820, he married Amélie Chataignier, daughter of an engraver. They produced four children, three sons and a twin daughter by the name of Celeste Saint-Ange. (Her date of birth has been elusive.)

Celeste Saint-Ange Dauban, my great-grandmother, married Victor Cune in 1859. He came from a prominent family living in Caen, one of the major cities in Normandy and famous for being a prime objective of the D-Day landings near the end of World War II. The magnificent Cune mansion (“chateau”) in Caen was destroyed by the Allied bombing in advance of the landings.

Victor Cune rose to become an Inspector of Public Education in the city of Clermont-Ferrand. He and his wife had the good fortune (or misfortune?) of having five daughters and no sons. One of these daughters (Charlotte Cune) never married. Another (Marcelle Cune) died in childhood.

A third daughter (Marie Cune) married Edouard Binecher and bore a daughter (Juliette), whose second marriage was to René Bouygues, a banker in Paris. Juliette and René had no children. The first estate I settled was that of Juliette Bouygues who died in 1992.

A fourth daughter (Marthe Cune) married Daniel Danjon, a professor of maritime law. They produced a son and a daughter. The son died at the age of 23 with no issue. The daughter, Danielle Danjon, married Paul Lavalley, a government bureaucrat. They had only one child, a daughter Marcelle. Marcelle married Pierre de la Gontrie and—after giving birth to a daughter in 1932—tragically died from pneumonia contracted while fleeing the Nazi occupation of Northern France. This daughter, Monique de la Gontrie, was raised by her grandmother Danielle. The second estate I settled was that of Monique who died in 2013.

The fifth daughter (Jeanne Amélie Cune), my grandmother, was born in 1872 and pursued my grandfather relentlessly (according to family lore) until he divorced his first wife and married her. Jeanne Amélie and Aristide Rieffel had three children, but the first, a daughter, died in childhood. Aristide, a distinguished journalist around the beginning of the 20th century, brought his family to the USA in 1914 to escape World War I. Their surviving daughter, Mireille, married Lincoln Gale, but they had no children and she died without a will. Their son, my father Marc-Aurele Rieffel, was born in 1906. He graduated from Harvard in 1927 and in 1936 married my mother, Mary Hemphill Bush, who was born in Wilmington DE in 1908. They had three children: my older brother (a math professor at UC/Berkeley), my younger brother (a retired librarian), and me.

1 Comment

Jul 05

With the growing media interest. in "," I sense a future video series for National Public Television in the works. From The Bridge will never be the same.

bottom of page