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The Forfeiture Rule and Assisted Dying

View profile for Leah Vincent
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A High Court Judge has ruled in the recent case of Ninian v Findlay that Sarah Ninian, who accompanied her husband Alex Ninian to Dignitas for his assisted death, can claim his £1.8 million estate.

Alex had been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, an incurable fatal disease in 2013 and by November 2017 had decided to seek assistance from Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life. As he was too ill to travel to Switzerland by himself, his wife Sarah accompanied him throughout the trip.

Alex’s Will named Sarah as the sole beneficiary to his Estate, so upon her return to the UK, the matter of the Forfeiture Rule arose. The Forfeiture Act 1982 defines the Forfeiture Rule as "the rule of public policy which in certain circumstances precludes a person who has unlawfully killed another from acquiring a benefit in consequence of the killing." Sarah was at significant risk of being denied the right to inherit her husband’s estate worth an estimated £1.8 million by being involved in his assisted death.

However, the High Court heard a prepared statement from Alex explaining that Sarah had opposed his decision to end his life for many months and only travelled with him to Switzerland because he could not travel there unaided. The CPS also decided not to prosecute her as it was not in the public interest. After stating that Sarah was wholly motivated by compassion, the Judge ruled that the Forfeiture Rule should be waived in this case.

The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) have pointed out that this case could lead to greater transparency on the issue of assisted dying and could reassure beneficiaries that they will not necessarily be cut out of their loved one’s inheritance. It also highlights the importance of taking sound independent legal advice on estate planning in order to protect those who you wish to inherit from your estate.

Please contact a member of our Private Client Department on 01242 574244 if you require advice in relation to your estate planning.