2020-06-18
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Inheritance disputes and unlawful killing

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Posted by Laura Abbott on 18 June 2020

Laura Abbott - Inheritance Disputes Lawyer
Laura Abbott Associate

It is not very often that a forfeiture case is reported, and yet there were two in as many months this spring.

The well-established forfeiture rule is a matter of clear public policy and provides that if a person unlawfully kills another they are not able to inherit from their estate

Section 2 of the Forfeiture Act 1982, allows for the rule to be modified or excluded in certain circumstances if the court is satisfied “having regard to the conduct of the offender and of the deceased and to such other circumstances as appear to the court to be material, the justice of the case requires the effect of the rule to be so modified…”

Recent cases

Last year in the case of Ninian v Findlay & Ors [2019] EWCH 297 (Ch), section 2 was used to exclude the effect of the rule in an assisted suicide case.

In April 2020 we saw the case of Amos v Mancini 2020 EWHC 1063 Ch in which a 74-year-old woman successfully argued that the forfeiture rule should be excluded following her causing the death of her husband by careless driving (in respect of which she pleaded guilty and received a suspended prison sentence). Under the terms of his will she stood to receive his residuary estate, plus his share of the matrimonial home under the doctrine of survivorship.

His daughter from a previous marriage sought to contest the will arguing that she should not be entitled on the basis of the forfeiture rule but her two siblings, who would also benefit if the rule were modified, did not oppose her application. 

The judge held that whilst her offence amounted to unlawful killing for the purposes of the 1982 Act, it was not deliberate or intentional, so depriving her of her inheritance would be 'significantly out of proportion' to her culpability.  

Subsequently, in May, in Challen v Challen [2020] EWHC 1330 (Ch), Sally Challen was also successful in her application for relief from forfeiture.  She had been convicted of her husband’s murder in 2010.  This was quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2019 and she received a conviction for manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility due to her husband’s abusive and coercive behaviour during their 40-year marriage.  Her two sons, who otherwise stood to receive the estate, did not oppose her application and indeed she said she brought it so that the estate could benefit from the inheritance tax spouse exemption if it were to pass to her but then she would immediately gift on to the children. 

It was held that the deceased  ‘undoubtedly contributed significantly to the circumstances in which he died’ and ‘without his appalling behaviour over so many years, the claimant would not have killed him’ and so the circumstances justified modification of the forfeiture rule and Ms Challen was permitted to inherit her late husband’s estate

These three cases are all of interest as, taken together, they are all examples of where morally it might be expected that the rule would be modified so it is pleasing to see a sensible and just approach being taken.  In each case though there was little opposition to the application from those who would otherwise expect to benefit, and each case was very fact specific.  In Challen, the judge was clear to stress that every case must be decided on its own merits.

About the author

Laura Abbott

Associate

Laura specialises in all aspects of contentious probate work and disputed estates.

Laura Abbott

Laura specialises in all aspects of contentious probate work and disputed estates.

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