Where one person unlawfully kills another, the killer usually forfeits their right to inherit any part of the victim’s property. As a High Court ruling in an exceptionally sad case showed, however, that general rule may be tempered by compassion in cases involving so-called ‘mercy killing’ or assisted suicide.
Prior to the death of a woman who was suffering from lung cancer, she made a will leaving the whole of her estate to her husband. He subsequently took his own life after instructing a funeral director that his public death notices should state that he died of a broken heart. By his will, he bequeathed his estate, including assets that he had inherited from his wife, to charity.
However, in the eulogy that he gave her and in notes to his solicitor and the funeral director, he had indicated that he had a hand in her death. She suffered dreadfully in the final stages of her illness and, in one of the notes, he wrote that he had done what she wanted but had later come to regret to the bottom of his heart having ended the life of his best and only friend.
The Forfeiture Act 1982 enshrines the longstanding rule of public policy which generally precludes a person who has unlawfully killed another from acquiring a benefit in consequence of the killing. The executor of the husband’s estate, however, sought a judicial declaration that the forfeiture rule should not be applied to the husband’s inheritance from his wife.
Ruling on the matter, the Court was satisfied from the husband’s own records that he either assisted his wife to commit suicide or ended her life himself. It was plain that he had unlawfully killed her. It was, however, absolutely clear that he had done so with extreme reluctance, as a desperate last resort. He later suffered unimaginable distress and was ultimately unable to go on living with what he had done.
In granting relief from the forfeiture rule, the Court found that the husband’s motives were entirely compassionate. What he did was consistent with his wife’s own settled and informed intention to end her life. He had almost no moral culpability for her death and, had he lived, he plainly would not have been prosecuted. His gift to charity in his will also elided with his wife’s wishes.