A woman who beat her husband to death with a hammer after suffering years of psychological abuse is entitled to inherit his estate.
Sally Challen was convicted of the murder of her husband and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011.
Sally had suffered 40 years of emotional abuse by her husband, Richard. She was trapped and manipulated in her marriage. Sally had tried to divorce her husband, even instructing solicitors, but Richard told her if she tried to do so he would limit her access to their children. In the words of HHJ Matthews ‘the deceased’s infidelity, use of prostitutes, violence towards the claimant, humiliating conduct, and isolation of the claimant’ led to Sally being coercively controlled (controlling and coercive behaviour became a criminal offence in 2015, five years after Sally had killed her husband).
After Sally killed her husband, she contemplated suicide and went to jump off a cliff edge. She left a note which read ‘I am sorry but I can’t live without Richard. All my love, Sally.’ It took four hours for a police negotiator to talk Sally down off the cliff.
Sally was then arrested and found guilty of murder. She had pleaded guilty to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility but this was rejected.
Sally spent the next 9 years and 4 months in prison.
After one failed appeal, in 2019 the Court of Appeal quashed Sally Challen’s murder conviction in light of new expert evidence about the effect of coercive control in her relationship. Her lawyers were able to successfully show that Sally was suffering from two mental disorders at the time of the killing and that these were exacerbated by her husband’s coercive control.
The Prosecution went on to accept Sally’s guilty plea for manslaughter and she was able to walk free, due to the time she had already served. That decision is considered a landmark ruling as it is the first time the Court has recognised the full significance of coercive and controlling behaviour
Sally then went on to make an application to be able to receive the assets from her husband’s estate. It is worth mentioning that Sally did not do this for own benefit – she made clear she did not wish to receive the funds for herself, but rather for the benefit of her sons (discussed further below).
Her husband had died without leaving a Will. Under the rules of intestacy, as the deceased’s spouse, Sally should have received a significant proportion of his estate and their family home should have passed to her by the rules of survivorship.
However, there is a rule of public policy which prevents someone from benefiting from the estate of someone they have unlawfully killed. As Sally had killed her husband she forfeited her right to benefit from his estate (this is known as the forfeiture rule).
This rule can be modified by the Court to allow someone to benefit if the “justice of the case requires”.
Such an application cannot be made by those convicted of murder, only for other unlawful killings. Therefore Sally was only able to make this application once her murder sentence was reduced to manslaughter.
In making the decision whether the forfeiture rule should be modified, the law requires the judge to have regard to the conduct of the offender and the deceased. HHJ Matthews took into account a range of circumstances, including the fact that the “deceased undoubtedly contributed significantly to the circumstances in which he died”.
He found that had it not been for Richard’s “appalling behaviour” over so many years, Sally would not have killed him. He held that it would be just in the circumstances to modify the forfeiture rule to enable Sally to benefit from the deceased’s estate.
HHJ Matthews was careful to add that this did not mean that any person suffering from the effects of coercive control should expect the forfeiture rule to be modified in their favour and that cases such as Sally’s were rare.
The effect of modifying the forfeiture rule in this case is that Sally benefits from the estate rather than her sons. Sally made clear that she does not want to actually recover the inheritance from her sons, however, there is a significant tax benefit to Sally receiving the assets in place of her sons. This is because as a spouse she is exempt from paying inherence tax at 40%. In essence this particular application appears to have been a probably unique form of tax planning
An interesting procedural point that came out of HHJ Matthews’ judgment is the date on which one is convicted of an unlawful killing. There is a strict time limit of three months from the date of conviction in which one can make an application to modify the forfeiture rule. It was not clear whether this meant three months from Sally’s original murder conviction or her subsequent manslaughter conviction. If it was the former, then Sally was out of time (although she could not have claimed at that time because relief from forfeiture cannot be granted in respect of a murder conviction). HHJ Matthews held that the time limit should run from the date of the subsequent manslaughter conviction. He also considered whether “conviction” means the point at which the court accepts a plea or the point at which the sentenced is passed by the Court. He held it to be the latter.