Can a murderer inherit from his victim?

In the USA they call the principle that a murderer cannot inherit from his victim the 'slayer rule'. In England and Wales it's enshrined in the Forfeiture Act. In most circumstances the rule makes perfect sense, but as so often with legal principles, there are situations where the consequences can be unjust. Chris Holten, a solicitor specialising in contested Wills, looks at a recent case that illustrates this point.

The case of Macmillan Cancer Support v Hayes [2017] EWHC 3110 (Ch) gives guidance on when relief should be granted against the forfeiture rule.  This case is particularly interesting as:

1.    It addresses the effect of the forfeiture rule.

2.    Offers commentary in regard to the Court’s power under the Forfeiture Act 1982 to modify the effect of the forfeiture rule in suitable circumstances.

The forfeiture rule is a common law rule derived from public policy, which states that a person who is criminally responsible for the death of another person cannot inherit as a result of their criminal act.  In other words – you cannot inherit a person’s estate if you are criminally responsible for their death.

The Court does have jurisdiction to amend this rule in certain circumstances. 


The Facts of the case

Peter Thomson (84) and his wife Sheila (88) were a loving, married couple.  They had previously agreed that when their normal lives were over it would be better for them both to end their lives, rather than live with poor health.  Peter was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and a grossly enlarged aorta which could rupture at any time.  Sheila was already living with advanced dementia and presumably required a high level of care from her husband peter.

Peter was found hanging in the hallway of their home with an envelope attached to his chest, which recorded that his wife had died at approximately 20:10 on 18 April 2015.  Sheila was found fully clothed lying peacefully in a reclining chair in the sitting room.  Next to her was a note from Peter, which recorded the agreement between the couple and that Sheila had been heavily sedated before being smothered by Peter.  In normal circumstances Peter would have been charged with Sheila’s murder on account of the fact that her dementia meant that she was unable to consent to the assisted suicide.

Peter and Sheila’s estate was worth approximately £600,000.  By clause 3 of Sheila’s Will her estate passed to Peter, provided that he survived her.  By clause 4 of the same Will Sheila’s estate passed to a number of charities and friends if Peter was deemed not to have survived Sheila.

Peter’s Will (which was made shortly before his death) made provision for the same charities and friends.

Peter did survive his wife and as such would have inherited the estate.  The forfeiture rule would usually prevent him from doing so however.  The wording of Sheila’s Will meant that if Peter was deemed to have survived his wife, the back up clauses to the charities and friends would not come into effect.  If Peter’s estate was unable to inherit Sheila’s estate (because of the forfeiture rule), then Sheila was deemed to have died intestate, which in this case meant that her estate went to distant Australian relatives.

The Macmillan charity applied for relief against the forfeiture rule so that they could inherit Sheila and Peter’s estate as intended. 

The Law

Provided that a person has not been convicted of murder (but nonetheless may have committed the act as in this case), section two of the Act allows the Court to modify the effect of the forfeiture rule if:

“it is satisfied that having regard to the conduct of the offended 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 in that case.”

Peter had not been convicted of murder and so it would seem that section 2 of the Act could apply.

The Outcome

The judge considered that in all the circumstances relief should be granted as it would enable Sheila’s wishes to be put into effect, albeit through her husband’s Will.  The judge’s view on the three criteria set out under section 2 of the Act were as follows:

 (1) Peter’s conduct

Sheila’s murder was premeditated, fastidious, open, honest and straightforward.  Peter was deemed to have left full details of his act in order to assist those investigating.

(2) Sheila’s conduct  

On balance it was determined that Sheila’s severe dementia meant that she could not be responsible for her own conduct or consent to her murder.

 (3) Other material circumstances

The judge considered the seven factors set out in Dunbar v Plant [1998] Ch 412 (a suicide pact case). He noted that the following points were particularly important:

(1) the loving relationship which existed between Peter and Sheila,

(2) that Peter believed that he and his wife and already agreed to end their lives while they were capable of doing so,

(3) Peter went out of his way to ensure that Sheila was comfortable and did not suffer and

(4) Peter did not receive any financial benefit as a result of the death of his wife.

The charity also brought an alternative application under section 33A of the Wills Act 1837, as inserted by the Estates of Deceased Persons (Forfeiture Rule and Law of Succession) Act 2011 based on recommendations in the Law Commission’s The Forfeiture Rule and the Law of Succession, Report No 295.  It was recommended that where a person forfeits a benefit under a Will as a result of their criminal act, the Will should nonetheless take effect as if the killer had died immediately before the testator, unless the Will proves otherwise.

The editors of Williams on Wills suggested that that the Commission’s clear intention had not been achieved in the Act.  The effect appeared to have been that the substitution will operate in relation to issue under section 33 of the 1837 Act, but an express substitution clause in a Will which substitutes non-issue for a primary beneficiary in the event of the latter predeceasing the testator, will not so operate.

However the judge declined to express a view on this argument as he was satisfied that relief from forfeiture should be given under the Act. 

If you would like to discuss the rules of forfeiture or any other contentious probate issue, please contact our contested Wills experts on 0808 139 1596 or email us at info@contesting-wills.co.uk