Wills and the forfeiture rule

Family Law|January 18th 2016

There is a long held rule that criminals should not profit from their crimes – the so called ‘forfeiture rule’. Specifically, the forfeiture rule applies in cases where someone stands to profit from an act of murder or manslaughter.

The rule is clear in the case of murder: where one person murders another they cannot benefit from that crime. So, they could not inherit anything from them, regardless of whether they were named as a beneficiary in that person’s will or wills, and they would not automatically take the whole of a property owned as joint tenants.

However, where a person is found guilty of manslaughter the rule isn’t quite so clear. The law says that a person convicted of manslaughter should not be able to benefit from that crime unless, when at all the circumstances surrounding the case are looked at it, would not be just or fair to deprive the person convicted of a benefit they stand to receive.

This law has been settled for a long time, but the judge in a recent court case had to re-examine it in relation to inheritance, and specifically the way lifetime trusts are dealt with.

In Henderson v Wilcox a man killed his elderly and frail mother by severely beating her. She suffered fractured ribs and internal bleeding which together caused her death. Ian had a low IQ, suffered from depression and autism, and had become his mother’s carer in the latter stages of her life. This was a reversal of roles, as she had cared for him for most of his life given his lack of life skills.

Ian was convicted of manslaughter because it was agreed that he did not intend to kill his mother or cause her really serious injury, though his actions did result in her death. Given that his conviction was for manslaughter and not murder, the court then had to decide whether the effect of the forfeiture rule should be altered in this case to allow him to inherit from his mother’s estate. After some deliberation the judge decided that the forfeiture rule should stand and he should be barred from inheriting anything from his mother’s estate. There was, however, a separate issue to be decided by the judge, and that related to how trusts set up whilst Ian and his mother were alive would be viewed, and specifically whether these were covered by the forfeiture rule.

Ian’s mother’s estate did not include her share of the property she jointly owned and lived in with Ian. Some time prior to the killing Ian and his mother had placed their interests in their home into a trust. Ian’s mother had named herself, Ian, and her nephew as the beneficiaries of the trust containing her share of the property.

The court had to decide whether the forfeiture rule would bar Ian from receiving any benefit from the trust his mother had set up during her lifetime. After much deliberation the court decided that it could not apply to the trust, because the rule only applies where a person benefits as a direct result of the killing. In this case the trust had been set up during Ian’s mother’s lifetime, and so he was a potential beneficiary of the trust from that time onwards. Therefore, he already stood to benefit from the trust and killing his mother had no bearing on that. However, it does leave an interesting question unanswered: what would the court have decided if the only potential beneficiaries of the trust were Ian and his mother? By killing his mother Ian could have ensured he was to benefit from it as he would have been the only remaining beneficiary, and so it could have been said he had benefited as a direct result of the killing.

Read Henderson v Wilcox here.

Author: Duncan Watson

Duncan was a solicitor who worked across the Stowe Family Law’s Harrogate, Wetherby, and Leeds offices. He advised clients on wills, estate administration, probate, tax, trusts and lasting powers of attorney. He has written several articles in legal publications and is a contributing author to a forthcoming legal textbook.

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