Could the Forfeiture Act stop you from inheriting?

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Mary RimmerSenior Associate

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Could the Forfeiture Act stop you from inheriting?

The Forfeiture Rule has a long-standing history dating back over a hundred years.  The common law rule says that those who commit a crime can then not benefit from the crime they committed.  The Forfeiture Act (the Act) was introduced in 1982 and sought to relieve against the historic common law rule by allowing the Court to take into account the conduct of the offender and any other relevant circumstance.  After doing so,  the Court can modify or exclude the common law rule, therefore not precluding someone from benefiting from a crime they have committed, such as the criminal offence of assisting or encouraging suicide. 

Both the common law rule and the Act came into force before assisted suicide became one of the most talked about legal and moral issues before our Courts today.  This week, the issue of forfeiture was addressed in the case of Alex Ninian, a man who travelled to Zurich to seek assisted suicide after living with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a degenerative condition with no cure available.  His wife, Sarah, travelled with him and was by his side when he died. 

On her return to England, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) considered they had sufficient evidence to prosecute her for assisting her husband’s suicide but decided it was against the public interest to prosecute her.  The CPS took into account Sarah’s opposition to her husband’s wish to travel to Zurich and the fact that she travelled with him because he could not travel alone, not because she wanted him to end his life.

Another difficulty faced by Sarah on her return to England was that she was the sole beneficiary of Alex’s Will.  The forfeiture rule would stop her inheriting her husband’s estate as she had assisted with his death by travelling with him.  In an application to dis-apply the forfeiture rule under the Forfeiture Act, the Court took into account the background to the decision and Sarah’s opposition to her husband’s wishes and concluded that she should inherit all of her husband’s estate as he had wished.  

This case not only clarifies the position about the forfeiture rules, in times when assisted suicide is more openly spoken about, but it also serves as a reminder to review Wills in light of any change of circumstances.  In addition, it is a reminder about the importance of those travelling to Zurich to take steps to ensure that any family members travelling with them are not precluded from inheriting what was originally intended and perhaps restricting their Wills in such a way to ensure that an application to the Court such as this one is not necessary.