Can you get away with murder?

Can you kill someone and still benefit from your victim's estate? The short answer is no. However, if it is found that a person did not intend to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (being charged with manslaughter instead of murder), they could be allowed to benefit from the deceased's assets.

It would be against public policy to allow a convicted person to benefit from their crime. This is where the Forfeiture Rule would apply. This rule has been established mainly to prevent convicted murderers from being able to inherit from their victim's estate in all circumstances. As a result, murderers will lose any previous entitlement they had to inherit under their victim's will or the rules of intestacy, as well as their potential right to administer the estate.  

However, in some cases, the Forfeiture Rule may be modified by the Court if it decides that depriving the person of benefiting from the estate would be unfair or unjust. Such discretion will only be exercised where a person has not been convicted of murder but of the lesser offence of manslaughter. This means that if it is found that a person did not intend to kill or cause grievous bodily harm, they will not be convicted of murder and could be allowed to benefit from the deceased's estate. Additionally, before waiving the rule, judges must consider all the circumstances surrounding the case.

The Forfeiture Rule also applies to property owned as joint tenants. This means that the victim's share of the property will not pass by survivorship to the co-owner if said owner murdered the other. Instead, the victim’s share of the property will pass under their will or the intestacy rules. 

The sins of the father

While the Forfeiture Act 1982 was only intended to prevent convicted murderers from benefitting from their victim's estate, it also barred the murderer’s children and other substitutionary legatees who could have benefited from the estate if not for the Forfeiture Rule. Here’s why:

Under the usual Intestacy Rules, the law aims to benefit your closest living relative, starting with your lineal descendants by working through an order of different classes of beneficiaries. Subsequent classes will only inherit if no one is alive or ever existed in the previous class. Similarly, many wills would have provisions with the same effect, ensuring that the estate will be left to direct descendants. However, it could be left to someone totally unrelated. When beneficiaries die before the testator, the legacy will pass to the next nominated person (will) or class of beneficiaries (intestacy).

As we know, under the Forfeiture Rule, you cannot inherit from your parents’ estate if you have been convicted of their murder. This creates a unique complication because the murderer is still alive, unable to benefit and, as they did not predecease the parents, no lineal descendants or subsequent legatees are entitled to inherit either. Unfortunately, this order of inheritance could not be disregarded or circumvented by any measures. Even though this rule was intended to prevent unjust outcomes, it punished not only the criminals but the innocent legatees, leaving estates to pass potentially to distant relatives, which likely went against the intention of the deceased person. 

To try and rectify the Forfeiture Rule's shortcomings, the Administration of Estates Act 1925 (intestacy rules) and the Wills Act 1837 was amended in 2011 by inserting what is known as the Deemed Predecease Rule. Under this rule, any person subject to the Forfeiture Rule will be considered to have died immediately before their victim for inheritance purposes. This allows the previously excluded lineal descendants and other named beneficiaries, to inherit and not be excluded by the implications of the Forfeiture Rule. Therefore, the murderer's children are no longer punished because of their parent's crime. 

 Written by : David Chandra & Kamilla Patai (Partner & Trainee Solicitor)

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