What is the Forfeiture Rule in Probate?

27 March 2019

The Forfeiture Rule is a law which prevents a criminal from benefitting from their crime in any way. So, for example, if someone unlawfully kills another person, they would not then be entitled to benefit in any way from the death of their victim. This means they would forfeit any inheritance they had previously been entitled to, either under the terms of the Will or the Rules of Intestacy.

This law has been established primarily to prevent convicted murderers from being able to inherit from their victim's Estate, and the rule is clear in how it is applied in such situations. If one person murders another then they should not be able to inherit anything from them, regardless of the circumstances.

Property Owned Jointly

What's more, if a property is owned jointly as joint tenants, then if one owner murders the other they will not then be able to take sole ownership of the property. This differs to the usual rules applied to property owned as joint tenants if one owner dies. In normal circumstances, when one joint owner of a property dies, the property would automatically transfer into the sole ownership of the surviving joint owner, regardless of what the Will states.

For more information, see Joint Tenants & Tenants in Common.

Can the Forfeiture Rule Be Waived?

So, the Forfeiture Rule is reasonably clear when it comes to murder, but where the law becomes more complex is when there has not been a murder conviction. This is because the Forfeiture Act 1982 includes a relief which allows the Court to waive the Forfeiture Rule (at their discretion) providing the killer has not been convicted of murder.

When a person is convicted of manslaughter, the law states that they should not benefit from their crime, unless it would be unfair or unjust to deprive them of a benefit they stand to receive. All the circumstances surrounding the case will need to be considered in order for the judge to make a decision on this. If there has been no conviction at all, then the Court may use their discretion to determine whether relief to the Forfeiture Rule should be applied.

The Case of Peter and Sheila Thompson

In one recent case, a loving, elderly couple had agreed between themselves that they would choose to end their lives if they reached a point where they both stopped living a 'normal' life. Peter and Sheila Thompson were in their 80s when Sheila was suffering from advanced dementia and Peter was diagnosed with cancer and an enlarged aorta, which could rupture at any time.

Peter sedated and suffocated his wife, before hanging himself, leaving a detailed note to the coroner explaining exactly what he had done and why. The couple had left Wills in which Sheila left everything to Peter, providing he was "proved" to have survived her. If Peter didn't survive her, then she stated her Estate should pass to certain friends and charities. Peter's Will also gifted his Estate to the same friends and charities.

If Peter had lived, he would have been charged with murder, so the Forfeiture rule applied. The general legal position when Forfeiture applies is that the beneficiary is treated as having died first, which would mean the friends and charities would have inherited Sheila's Estate. However, Sheila's Will was very specific in saying that Peter specifically had to be proved to survive her in order for this to happen, and this clearly couldn't be done. This meant that Sheila's Estate would be dealt with as if she had not left a Will, and distant relatives would have inherited her Estate instead under the Rules of Intestacy.

One of the charities due to inherit under the couple's Wills was Macmillan Cancer Support. This charity applied to the Court for relief against the Forfeiture Rule, so that they and the other named Beneficiaries could still inherit under the terms of Peter's Will. If Peter had survived, he would have been convicted of Sheila's murder, but under the circumstances there was no murder conviction.

The judge considered the circumstances of the case along with Peter's conduct and decided that relief should be granted in this instance. Some of the points taken into consideration by the judge included the couple's loving relationship and their prior agreement, the fact that Peter did not benefit financially from his wife's death, and the measures taken by Peter to ensure that Sheila was comfortable and did not suffer during her death.

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