The Forfeiture Rule

The forfeiture rule is a longstanding legal maxim, later written into law by the Forfeiture Act 1982 (the Forfeiture Act), precluding a person who has unlawfully killed another from benefiting as a result of the killing in certain circumstances. This would generally mean that someone who has been convicted of causing a death would not be able to benefit from the estate of the person who had died.

However, the Forfeiture Act does provide the courts with discretion to modify or exclude the effect of the rule. Kate Farkins, from Ronald Fletcher Baker's Private Client department, examines two recent cases in which applications were made to the court to disapply this rule to assess when it may be appropriate to allow a beneficiary who has unlawfully killed to still inherit.

Amos v Mancini (2020)

In this case Mrs Amos, a 74 year old woman from Wales, was travelling with her husband Mr Amos when she drove into the back of a line of stationary cars. Unfortunately, Mr Amos died in hospital shortly after the accident as a result of serious injuries sustained in the crash.

Mrs Amos was charged with causing death by careless driving to which she pled guilty and she received a suspended prison sentence.

Under Mr Amos's will, his entire estate was left to Mrs Amos, who would also inherit their jointly owned home under the doctrine of survivorship. His will provided that if Mrs Amos did not survive him, £20,000 would go to Ms Mancini who was his daughter from a previous marriage with the residue of the estate being divided equally between Mr Amos's son from his previous marriage and Ms Mancini's daughter. If the forfeiture rule applied, the estate would have been distributed as if Mrs Amos had died before her husband.

When the judge considered the facts of the case (including the fact that Mrs Amos had been driving for an unexpectedly long period of time before the incident occurred), he waived the forfeiture rule deciding that disinheriting Mrs Amos would be 'significantly out of proportion' to her fault. A deciding factor was that neither of the two substitute residuary beneficiaries were objecting to Mrs Amos inheriting her husband's estate. It is also worth noting that the offence for which Mrs Amos was convicted did not exist when the Forfeiture Act was enacted.

Challen v Challen (2020)

Mr and Mrs Challen had a relationship spanning 40 years beginning when Mrs Challen was only 15 years old. They went on to marry and have two children. Mr Challen was unfaithful throughout their relationship and used the services of prostitutes. He was controlling and violent towards Mrs Challen, isolating her from her friends and gaslighting her. This behaviour was later described by the Court as 'coercive control'.

In August 2010, Mrs Challen came home one evening and killed her husband with a hammer. She was initially convicted of murder but her conviction was quashed in 2019 and the court accepted her plea of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility instead. She was sentenced to 9 years in prison which she had already served.

When the question of forfeiture arose in this case, Mr and Mrs Challen's two sons (who stood to inherit if Mrs Challen did not) supported their mother's position. Mrs Challen stated that her intention was to allow her sons to keep the money from Mr Challen's estate but on the basis that she would receive it first to take advantage of the spousal exemption for inheritance tax purposes.

Here, despite the intentional and deliberate act of killing, the forfeiture rule was waived allowing Mrs Challen to inherit, with factors such as the claim being unopposed and the deceased's controlling and coercive behaviour being influential. The judge concluded that 'without his [the deceased's] appalling behaviour over so many years, the claimant would not have killed him'.

Although these are two very different cases in terms of the facts, both illustrate that the court can and will disapply the effect of the forfeiture rule when it considers that it would be just for the person who has unlawfully killed to inherit. When the claim for relief from forfeiture is not being opposed by those who would stand to gain as substituted beneficiaries, the court is more likely to grant the relief, particularly where the person who has killed is ultimately intending to pass the benefit on to the people who would otherwise inherit.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.