Posted by Laura Podger, Trainee
The Forfeiture rule – when is relief granted?
The Forfeiture Rule is a well known concept under common law. If someone unlawfully kills another person (murder or manslaughter) the Forfeiture Rule will prevent them from inheriting under the deceased`s estate.
However, a relief does exist under the Forfeiture Act 1982. This gives the court a discretionary power to waive the rule, provided that the killer has not been convicted of murder. The exercise of this discretion was evident in the recent case of Macmillan Cancer Support v Hayes.
Peter and Sheila Thomson were both in their eighties. They were a devoted, loving couple with no children. They had agreed between themselves that, if they ever both stopped living their ‘normal’ lives, they would want to end their lives while still capable of doing so.
Sheila was suffering from advanced dementia and Peter had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and an enlarged aorta.
Peter was found hanging in their home, having committed suicide, with a note attached to his chest, stating that on 18 April 2015 at approximately 20.10, his wife had died. Sheila had been heavily sedated and then suffocated by her husband. A note addressed to the Coroner had been left explaining what had happened and why.
Under Sheila’s Will she had left everything to her husband, providing he was proved to have survived her. In default of Peter`s surviving her, Sheila`s will provided gifts to various charities and friends.
Peter’s Will provided for the same charities and friends.
How the Law was applied
The Forfeiture Rule would prevent Peter from inheriting under his wife’s Will because he had killed her. This would mean that distant relatives of Sheila’s would benefit under the intestacy rules. The charities and friends would not benefit.
Macmillan, one of the charities under Peter’s Will, applied for relief, so that the beneficiaries could benefit via Peter’s Will.
The court exercised its discretion to grant relief from the otherwise harsh effect of the forfeiture rule. Mr Justice Mark Raeside QC considered:
(1) Peter’s conduct
This was premeditated, fastidious, open, honest and straightforward from the point of view of those who had to investigate this killing. He had left full details to assist the investigations.
(2) Sheila’s conduct
Her severe dementia meant that she could not be responsible for her own conduct.
(3) Other material circumstances
Of particular importance was the loving relationship between the couple and the fact that they had reached an agreement regarding ending their lives should these circumstances come to pass. Peter had ensured that his wife was comfortable and did not suffer; he also achieved no financial benefit from the death of his wife.
Mr Justice Raeside concluded that in all the circumstances relief should be granted.
This case illustrates the type of circumstances in which the court will consider modifying the effect of the forfeiture rule on the person who unlawfully killed, thus enabling them (or their estate) to benefit from an estate that has arisen as a result of the unlawful killing.
The provision is an important one as it allows the court to use its discretion, which is of particular significance in cases of domestic violence and diminished responsibility.
If you have any questions regarding forfeiture with wills or think that you might need legal advice in this area, please contact our Private Client team on:
0800 923 2070 Email us