There is a public policy that prevents someone who has unlawfully killed another person from inheriting that person's estate (the ‘forfeiture rule'). This includes estates passing via intestacy or valid wills and includes joint property which would otherwise pass to the survivor.
The forfeiture rule is the subject of a recent case, Ian Robert Henderson v (1) June Wilcox (2) Julian Marcus Wilcox (3) Andrew John Robertson (4) Cynthia Jamieson Duff  EWHC 3469 (Ch). Mrs Henderson, 87, died on 2 April 2013 as a result of injuries sustained in a severe assault on her by her son, Ian, on the night of 13 March 2013. Ian was subsequently convicted of manslaughter at a trial on 15 September 2014. In 2006, Mrs Henderson made a will which left her entire estate to Ian if he survived her. In this case, the claimant was Ian. The defendants were Mrs June Wilcox and her son, Julian Wilcox. Mrs Wilcox was Mrs Henderson’s sister-in-law and named executor. Mrs Wilcox’s son (who is Mrs Henderson’s nephew) was named as substitute beneficiary should Ian pre-decease. The other named defendants, Mr Robertson and Mrs Duff are solicitors practising with a firm in Scotland who did not defend the claim and stated that they would abide by the court’s decision.
Ian’s application was issued on the basis that a court does have the power pursuant to the Forfeiture Act 1982 to modify the application of the forfeiture rule.
Mrs Henderson’s estate comprised of just over £150,000 mainly from accounts and investments. It included cash in the sum of £35,000 found in the house, half of which has been treated as Ian’s. The estate did not include the house in which they both lived. At one stage, the house was owned jointly between Mrs Henderson and Ian but they both executed trusts during their lifetimes in respect of their share of the property. Ian was named as one of beneficiaries of Mrs Henderson’s trust.
HHJ David Cooke found that the forfeiture rule had “no application now to any interest existing or in future created under either trust” on the basis that the interests that Ian has or may acquire under the trusts do not arise or result from the death of Mrs Henderson and Ian’s interest is neither created or enlarged by her death. Therefore, the trustees were not prevented from exercising their discretion under those trusts in favour of Ian by the forfeiture rule if they think fit. If the trustees do so, Ian will not be prevented by that rule from taking any benefit conferred by the trustees.
Ian was 62 when he killed his mother. He had lived with his parents for his whole life. Mrs Henderson had told one of the defendants, Mrs Wilcox, that she believed Ian had been born with a heredity brain illness. Against this backdrop, Mrs Henderson had kept Ian isolated from other people and ensured that he followed a strict domestic routine. Ian attended mainstream school but left without any qualifications. In or around 1984, Ian was mugged during which he was stabbed and suffered a stroke, brain injuries and/or epilepsy. However, doctors examining him prior to the criminal trial found no evidence of a stab injury and his medical notes did not corroborate any stroke or epilepsy. Although the events leading up to Mrs Henderson’s death are unclear, she did suffer injuries and told a social worker on one occasion that her black eye was caused by Ian punching her.
In the criminal trial, all of the psychiatric experts agreed that Ian was fit to plead. HHJ David Cooke found that Mrs Henderson sought to protect Ian throughout his life and that Ian took advantage of that fact. Ian was also likely to benefit under his own trust and may do under his mother’s depending on how the trustees exercise their discretion. HHJ David Cooke further found that Mrs Henderson kept substantial amounts of money in the house and “plainly did not suspect that Ian could have any financial motive for mistreating her”. He stated that “sympathy for the applicant is not however the guiding factor for the court” and that “I must be satisfied that justice requires modification of the forfeiture rule”. Accordingly, Ian’s application was dismissed.