You'd think the law would be clear - if a person is convicted of murdering someone, or they cover up a murder, they cannot inherit from their victim's estate.

Under section 11 of the NSW Forfeiture Act 1995, the Supreme Court can decide whether a person who murders someone, but is found not guilty by reason of mental illness, can benefit financially from the crime. (See Forfeiture rule: why you can't kill your parents and then inherit their estate.)

Mentally ill man who murdered his parents still inherits part of their estate

One such case involved a man who murdered his parents, who had left him $1 million in their wills. He was found not guilty by reason of mental illness and the court ruled that while he should not receive the entire $1 million, he would be granted part of the estate.

The Supreme Court said $120,000 from the estate should go to his legal bills and $100,000 should be kept in trust for his needs in detention and to help him when he is released. (See Re Settree Estates; Robinson v Settree [2018] NSWSC 1413.)

In May 2021 the NSW government replaced the special verdict of "not guilty by reason of mental illness" with a special verdict of "act proven but not criminally responsible" for criminal proceedings in the District and Supreme Courts.

Can someone inherit from the victim if they cover up their murder?

The question of whether a person can inherit from the victim if they cover up their murder has arisen in a case in Western Australia, where a woman was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact to her mother's murder.

It was the notorious "body in a suitcase" murder, where a dead woman was found squeezed into a suitcase floating on the Swan River. She turned out to be Annabelle Chen, who had a multi-million dollar estate.

The dead woman's former husband, Ah Ping Ban, was found guilty of her murder and sentenced to life, with a minimum 20 years' jail. The daughter, Tiffany Wan, was found to have helped her father cover up the crime by removing his footprints from her mother's home and lying to police. She was sentenced to four years and ten months in prison.

So the next question is - can she inherit her mother's multi-million dollar estate?

Does the forfeiture rule apply if you are an accessory to the murder?

The NSW Forfeiture Act applies to homicides as well as "aiding, counselling or procuring such a homicide". Similar laws also apply in WA, where Ms Chen's murder took place.

In this case, Ms Wan was found guilty of covering up the murder after it was committed, not for aiding her father to commit it. While the law says you should not benefit from a crime, courts can find there are exceptions.

Mr Ban is appealing his life sentence, arguing it was Ms Wan who killed her mother. Mr Ban claims he discovered the body when he returned from Singapore, and only sought to protect his daughter by assisting her in disposing of the body in a suitcase in the river. (See 'Jury painted into corner in body-in-suitcase trial': Ex-husband appeals murder conviction, WA Today, September 2019.)

Ms Wan, who has since been released on parole, had successfully argued in her earlier trial that it was her father who killed her mother, and she had helped cover up the murder out of misguided loyalty.

It remains unclear whether she can inherit her mother's estate.

Joshua Crowther
Will disputes
Stacks Law Firm

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