Rules of public policy (now embodied in law) mean that a person who has unlawfully killed another must not benefit from the death, such as through inheritance.
That is straightforward enough where A kills B – A cannot inherit from B’s estate.
But what if A instead assists B with his/her suicide?
This continues to be a crime according to the Suicide Act 1961, and is deemed to be included within the “unlawful killing” provisions. However, the Forfeiture Act 1982 allows the court, on an application, to modify or exclude the operation of the forfeiture rule.
The recent case of Ninian v Findlay (2019) brought these issues to widespread public attention.
A and B were a devoted couple who had been married since 1982. Sadly, B developed a terminal illness and without the knowledge of A, contacted “Dignitas” in Zurich, the well-known assisted suicide organisation. A was strongly against the involvement of Dignitas and voiced her opposition, but to no avail.
As B’s illness progressed, he became less able to manage all aspects of the arrangements and A felt bound to help as B had an unshakeable resolve to carry out the plan to end his life, which he did on 16 November 2017, accompanied by A at the Dignitas’ clinic in Zurich.
In short, was A to be excluded from any benefit under B’s Will. B had made the Will long after his diagnosis and in its terms left substantially his entire estate to B, assuming she survived him. It was described as part of his meticulous planning for his death.
The court decided that A’s actions did amount to acts that were capable of assisting B’s suicide (so an offence had been committed) but that the court should grant A relief from the consequences of forfeiture – there was no question that A had been motivated by anything other than her natural love and affection for B.
There was no malicious intent or mercenary advantage on the part of A.
Matters that helped the court come to these (sensible) conclusions were that both A and B had anticipated the problems, and took professional advice in good time.
This enabled them to get independent legal representation, with assistance in drawing up suitable Wills, and in completing signed witness statements in which all the facts and matters relevant to B’s decision and A’s heavy hearted and reluctant participation were recorded.
It is not known whether the couple ever considered alternatives – for example, B could have transferred his assets to A during his lifetime.
This would have been exempt from Inheritance Tax (IHT), just as inheritance on death between spouses is exempt. There would certainly have been a possible Capital Gains Tax downside to face on a lifetime transfer of assets, but the problem of the forfeiture rule otherwise faced by A could have been completely side-stepped.