Does Assisted Suicide impact Probate and Inheritance?

01 April 2019

In England and Wales there is a law called the 'Forfeiture Rule' which means that a person may not inherit from someone whom they have unlawfully killed. As the law currently stands, assisted suicide is not legal in the UK, meaning that someone who aids the suicide of another would not be able to inherit from that person's Estate.

However, circumstances surrounding assisted suicide are often complex, meaning that it's not quite as clear cut as this. During Probate, the Court has discretion to provide relief from the Forfeiture Rule in certain circumstances, and this relief has been applied in some assisted suicide cases.

The Law on Assisted Suicide

Under UK law, assisting or encouraging the suicide of another person is illegal. This is set out in the Suicide Act 1961 and is punishable by a maximum of 14 years in prison.

While the UK is not alone in its legal stance on assisted suicide, an increasing number of countries around the world are passing bills to legalise the practice. These countries now include the Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, as well as some states of the USA, including Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and – most recently – California.

Because of this, some terminally ill Britons choose to travel abroad to end their life legally. However, helping someone to travel abroad for this purpose or assisting with any of the associated administration is also illegal in the UK.

This means that someone who is found to have done this could potentially be prosecuted under the law of England and Wales, and under the Forfeiture Rule they could also have to forfeit any inheritance they were entitled to inherit from their loved one's Estate. The Forfeiture Rule will apply independently of criminal law, regardless of whether or not a criminal conviction has been made.

Forfeiture Rule Relief

In certain circumstances, the Court may agree to grant relief on the Forfeiture Rule, if they believe this to be fair and just. This is exactly what happened in a recent case, where a woman accompanied her terminally ill husband to Switzerland, where he ended his life.

Alex Ninian had been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy in 2013. His condition deteriorated to such a point that, in November 2017, he decided to travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end his life. Alex's wife Sarah accompanied him on his final trip, providing assistance as he was too unwell to travel alone.

In Alex's Will, he named Sarah as the sole beneficiary of his £1.8m Estate. However, as Sarah had assisted in his suicide, the Court had to determine whether the Forfeiture Rule should be applied. If applied, this would see Sarah forfeit any entitlement she had to her husband's Estate.

During the hearing, the Court heard a statement that Alex had prepared prior to his death. In this he stated that for many months Sarah had opposed his decision to end his life, and that ultimately she had only agreed to accompany him to Switzerland because he was unable to travel unaided. The Judge decided to waive the Forfeiture Rule in this instance, stating that Sarah had been motivated wholly by compassion.

The Crown Prosecution Service also decided not to prosecute Sarah for the assisting in her husband's suicide, determining that this would not be in the public's best interest.

So, while it does remain a criminal offence in England and Wales to assist in a suicide, this case has highlighted that relief to the Forfeiture Rule can be applied in some situations where a beneficiary has assisted a suicide.

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