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Testing England and Wales' forfeiture rule in mercy killings

1 December 2023 | Applicable law: England and Wales | 3 minute read

Hannah Goodman passed away in July 2020, three years after being diagnosed with lung cancer.  The day before she died she had a home visit from her doctor who recorded that Hannah was struggling with pain, fear and terror.  She had told her doctor she wanted to attend Dignitas but could not, due to the pandemic. 

She left her estate to her husband Adrian, failing which to a discretionary charitable trust.  Hannah wanted this trust to establish a foundation that would benefit those with an interest in the classic car industry, as well as providing apprenticeships for 16 to 25 year olds.  The firm who drafted her Will used wording which was too broad for her charitable legacy to be exempt from inheritance tax. 

Adrian administered her estate and then made a new Will, leaving his estate to charity and naming Withers Trust Corporation (WiTCo) as his executor.  In his letter of wishes, he said that he wanted his beneficiary to be a foundation he would establish, called the Armiger Foundation, with the purpose of promoting education about classic and historical vehicles and providing apprenticeships.

In December 2020, Adrian wrote an apparent suicide note to his solicitor.  The police visited, and found him to be in a very sad space.  In May 2022, Adrian sent his local funeral directors instructions for his funeral, with his eulogy.  This ended 'Adrian felt that it was by his own hand that he had released Hannah at her own wish from the impossible burden of dying of cancer'.  He asked the undertakers to place death notices for newspapers, to record that he had died of a broken heart.  Adrian took his own life in 2022, by carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Legal issues

If Adrian had assisted Hannah to commit suicide then, under the 'forfeiture rule', he would have been unable to benefit on her death (whether from her estate or other assets such as her pension).  As Adrian had already administered Hannah's estate, the effect of the rule was that WiTCo held all the proceeds of Hannah's estate on trust for her other beneficiaries (ie the charitable trust).  The wording of Hannah's will means that this gift to charity would not qualify for the charitable exemption from inheritance tax and so around £200,000 would be due.  Trying to disentangle Hannah and Adrian's assets would have been complex.

In order to address this, WiTCo applied for an order for relief from the forfeiture rule.  If successful, this would mean that Adrian still inherited Hannah's assets, and these would then pass via Adrian's Will to the Armiger Foundation (his legacy was worded such that no inheritance tax is payable).

The judge concluded that Adrian had 'unlawfully killed' Hannah (so the forfeiture rule did apply), but he had done so with 'extreme reluctance…as an act of desperation and as a last resort to which he was driven', causing him 'unimaginable distress'.  She found that Adrian's 'moral culpability…was extremely low, almost as low as any unlawful killer's culpability could have been', such that there would be no criminal prosecution (in line with the CPS's guidance on prosecution for mercy killings).

On this basis, the judge granted full relief from the forfeiture rule and so Adrian's estate, and ultimately the Armiger Foundation, was entitled to benefit from Hannah's estate.

This case is a useful precedent for the use of the Forfeiture Act 1982 for a 'mercy killing', showing that in particular circumstances, especially tragic ones such as this, the Court has a broad discretion.

Paul Hewitt and Alexandra Dix represented Withers Trust Corporation Limited, instructing Andrew Holden of XXIV Buildings.  Mrs Goodman's estate was represented by Mercers LLP, who instructed Barbara Rich of 5 Stone Buildings. 

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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