When will a beneficiary forfeit their rights under a Will?
Anti-Hero, a track on Taylor Swift’s latest album, Midnights, features the lyrics “I have this dream my daughter-in-law kills me for the money she thinks I left them in the Will.” Fortunately for Taylor, she did not leave any money to them and is able to, “laugh up at them all from hell.” But what if she had? Would Taylor’s conniving relatives stand to inherit her fortune even after their terrible act?
The Forfeiture Act
Section 1 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 precludes a person that has unlawfully killed another from acquiring a benefit as a consequence of that killing (the “Forfeiture Rule”). One of the most direct and apparent examples of such a benefit would be inheriting from the estate of someone you have killed. As such, either carrying out, or aiding, in murder or manslaughter, or assisting in the suicide, of a testator precludes you from being able to inherit from their estate.
Important points to note:
- The Courts have held that killing in order to inherit sooner does not need to be the intention of the killing in order for the Forfeiture Rule to apply; the benefit need only be a consequence of the killing.
- The Administration of Estates Act 1925 and the Wills Act 1837 were amended in 2011 to include the ‘deemed predecease rule’. This means that, if someone forfeits their inheritance under a Will, they are treated as having immediately predeceased the testator. Consequently, if the Will so provides, a murderer’s children would still be able to and will not suffer for the sins of their parent.
Can you get relief from the Forfeiture Rule?
Section 2 of the Forfeiture Act does offer the possibility of relief from the Forfeiture Rule, giving the court the power to modify or exclude the effect of the Forfeiture Rule if it would lead to an unjust outcome. A case that clearly evidences the power of Section 2 being used for good is Ninian v Findlay .
In Ninian v Findlay, Mrs Ninian, with a great degree of reluctance and opposition, assisted her husband in travelling to Switzerland to end his life at a Dignitas clinic. Despite her best efforts, Mrs Ninian could not convince her husband, who had a terminal illness, to see out his time, and so, motivated by her love and empathy for him, she assisted by making the travel arrangements and accompanying him to Switzerland. Mr Ninian was too ill to travel alone, but one would also assume that Mrs Ninian wished to be present as a comfort to her long-time partner in his final moments.
Assisting with suicide is an act which triggers the Forfeiture Rule, and so the question arose as to whether Mrs Ninian could inherit her husband’s estate. Mrs Ninian applied to the court to have the Forfeiture Rule set aside.
The court found that Mrs Ninian was solely motivated by compassion for her husband and did not consider the prospect of inheritance when she assisted Mr Ninian in his death. The court also recognised Mrs Ninian’s attempts to dissuade her husband from ending his life and found that she had been a reluctant assistant. In the circumstances, the court chose not to apply the Forfeiture Rule and Mrs Ninian was able to inherit her husband’s estate.
Can the Forfeiture Rule be disapplied in other circumstances?
In another case heard in 2019, Sally Challen was able to persuade the court to allow her to inherit her late husband’s estate after she had been sentenced to life in prison for his murder in 2011. She was the beneficiary under his last Will but had forfeited her inheritance when the original conviction was made. However, in the case of R v Challen , Sally’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter with diminished responsibility and she was released from prison for time served.
Sally subsequently relied on section 2 of the 1982 Act to seen an order disapplying the Forfeiture Rule (Challen v Challen ). The court found that an exception should be made for Sally, whose case was, “extraordinary, tragic and one would hope, rare” and it was ruled that the Forfeiture Rules should not apply.
In the event, Mr Challen’s estate had already been distributed to Sally’s children following her original conviction, but Sally was, fortunately, able to reclaim inheritance tax that had been paid under the spouse exemption. The case was not only significant in respect of the law of forfeiture, but a triumph for female justice; the court acknowledged the effect of Sally’s husband’s coercive control over her and granted relief to a woman whom, for over 30 years, was subjected to intense psychological abuse at the hands of her husband.
Life is not simple, and even less simple are the circumstances surrounding death. Whilst Taylor Swift’s daughter-in-law would rightly fall foul of the Forfeiture Rule, it is undoubtedly reassuring to know that section 2 of the 1982 Act can be called upon to offer relief where the circumstances require justice to be served. Our Contentious Trusts and Probate Team can advise you if you have any queries or concerns in relation to this issue.
This article was written by Nick Stotesbury, Legal Director. For any enquiries, please contact Nick or another member of our team on 01473 406386 or at email@example.com.