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Hunters Law
8th June 2023

Difficult Conversations: assisted suicide and the forfeiture rule

Difficult Conversations: assisted suicide and the forfeiture rule

The ‘forfeiture’ rule

The ‘forfeiture’ rule, which was introduced to legislation by the Forfeiture Act 1982, enshrines the principle from the 1911 case Estate of Cripps that ‘no person can obtain, or enforce, any rights resulting to him from his own crime’ – in other words, the rule prevents a person from profiting from a crime they have committed. As a result, if a person is killed by someone who stands to benefit from the death – such as a beneficiary under the deceased’s Will – then the person who committed the crime will ‘forfeit’ their right to the inheritance.

Whilst the forfeiture rule has obvious application in murder and manslaughter cases, perhaps less obvious is the fact that, due to the criminalised status of assisted suicide under UK law, it will also apply where a beneficiary helps a loved one to end their own life (for instance, in cases of terminal illness). 

A growing body of case law shows that ‘assisting’ – which could mean arranging travel to an assisted suicide clinic, accompanying the person on the trip or procuring the medication required to end the person’s life – may result in the beneficiary forfeiting their right to inheritance, notwithstanding that their only intention may have been to help a loved one carry out their final wishes.

The criminal consequences of assisted suicide 

As a result of the criminalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide in the UK, assisting a loved one with ending their own life carries criminal implications. The Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) will usually be required to conduct an investigation into the circumstances of the death and the type of assistance given, and the police will have to be informed. 

In the majority of cases, the CPS will determine that prosecution is not in the public interest, but investigations can still carry a great deal of stress, and it is worth taking steps to instruct criminal law advisors from an early stage to support you through the process.

Relief from forfeiture 

Even if no criminal prosecution is pursued, the implications of the forfeiture rule will remain. 

If a beneficiary under the Will or intestacy rules assisted the deceased with their death, then the beneficiary will need to consider making a claim for ‘relief from forfeiture’. This is an application to the civil court, which asks the judge to consider ignoring the forfeiture rule in the circumstances, thereby allowing the beneficiary to keep their inheritance. 

The court has discretion to do this where it is in the interests of justice, and though the court’s decision will be based on the specific facts of each case, they have granted relief in circumstances where the CPS has decided against prosecution, and where other beneficiaries under the Will have been in support of the application for relief.

If an application is required, it will be vital to have trusted legal advisors who are able to support you through the process of making the application, collating the evidence, and attending the hearing with you.

Practical steps

Applications for relief from forfeiture can be costly and do not have definite outcomes. Ideally, therefore, it would be best if they can be avoided altogether.

If you are the person considering assisted suicide, some suggested practical steps include:

  • Seeking legal advice from both criminal and civil lawyers at an early stage of planning, to understand what the implications might be for anyone assisting you (the ‘Assisting Person’).
  • If you are planning on asking a beneficiary of your Will to help you, consider whether there is anyone else who might be able to assist in their place. If there is nobody else who can assist, try and ensure that the Assisting Person knows about the likelihood of forfeiting their inheritance in the absence of applying for relief. Advice should also be sought about how the costs of a relief from forfeiture application are to be paid (it may be worth considering, for example, increasing the inheritance going to the Assisting Person if they agree to bear the costs of any claim for relief).

If you are the Assisting Person, maintain an open dialogue with your criminal and civil legal advisors, the police and the CPS both before and after the death, in order to ensure that you understand what is happening and are able to cooperate fully with all investigations.

The Private Client Team at Hunters understand the legal nuances of the forfeiture rule and can be trusted to advise sensitively at both the Will-writing stage and if a claim for relief from forfeiture is required. If you, or a loved one, are considering assisted suicide, it is important to reach out and seek advice at an early stage.