The Forfeiture Rule

Forfeiture rule_0.jpegWhat is the Forfeiture Rule all about? How did it come about? It is based on the fact that it is against the policies of public law to allow convicted murderers to claim an inheritance. The Forfeiture Rule also applies to gifts that have been left in a will for the “criminal” under intestacy rules, as well as to any property belonging to a surviving descendant, and also the benefits of life insurance. The law is designed to stop murderers from benefiting from their crimes – this is known as the Forfeiture Rule.

How did this rule come about?

The Forfeiture Rule comes from the wider Estates of Deceased Persons (Forfeiture Rule and Law of Succession) Act 2011 and impacts children of murderers.

The incident that triggered a review of this Act involved a man who killed his parents, leaving him as the sole beneficiary of their estate. However, the Forfeiture Rule prevented him from inheriting anything. He himself had a son whom it was thought would be next in line to inherit, but the Court of Appeal held that the son did not qualify as he did not meet the strict rules of intestacy legislation – that a father should be deceased in order for a son to inherit. A sister of the deceased inherited instead. Naturally, this led to problems, with varying opinions, debates and appeals being put forward. Around 2003, the government requested that the Law Commission review the Forfeiture Rule around its laws of succession. This led to a report by the Law Commission in a draft Bill, which finally received Royal Assent in July 2011.

A recent case involving the Forfeiture Rule and its results

Look at this case as an example. In 2015, Peter Thomson, aged 84, killed his wife, Sheila, 88, and then committed suicide. The couple had no children. Peter left a note explaining to the coroner that both he and Sheila were ill and so the couple had discussed their deaths and had decided to deal with the issue themselves.  Peter would suffocate Sheila, who had dementia and was unable to consent to her death at the time, and then he would kill himself. Had he survived, Peter would have been charged with Sheila’s murder. He survived Sheila (if but briefly) so he would have inherited what was in her will – were it not for the Forfeiture Rule. Sheila’s estate would then go to her other default beneficiaries.

These beneficiaries agreed that the Macmillan Cancer Support charity to which the couple had been linked should offer a claim to get relief from forfeiture. They wanted a declaration that the pre-decease rule should apply. Genealogists would locate all those entitled to intestacy. Most of these beneficiaries gave their support to the Macmillan Cancer Support application. The Judge was sought to be persuaded to make the declaration. As Peter had not been convicted of murder at that time, the courts had the right to contemplate whether the Forfeiture Rule should be modified. The Judge found that in the circumstances, it was “morally justifiable” that Peter would assist Sheila with her death and that he genuinely believed he was acting in her best interests. Peter had ensured that Sheila did not suffer, and the Judge concluded that Sheila’s killing was “premeditated, fastidious, open, honest and straightforward from the point of view of those who had to investigate this killing”. The couple had had an agreement prior to their deaths. They had no children and it appeared that they were devoted to each other. This case was unusual because forfeiture issues usually always concern children, but not in this instance.

The Judge commented briefly on the background to the 2011 amendment, but you can follow the case and read the results here.

It suffices to say that the Judge was satisfied with the case and relief from forfeiture under the Act was granted.