Disinherited? Death and the forfeiture rule
I wrote about the little known and unusual ‘forfeiture rule’ a few months ago in cases involving assisted suicide. The Forfeiture Act 1982 lays down a simple rule that an individual cannot benefit from someone’s death if they have ‘unlawfully aided, abetted or procured’ the death. It usually applies in cases of murder, manslaughter and offences under the Suicide Act.
Now this year there have been not one, but two cases reported widely in the press.
The forfeiture rule obviously makes sense, but had potentially unfair consequences for two women, which these cases have put right. The first, in particular, could be highly relevant to a number of people who have suffered a bereavement, following a road traffic accident.
The case of Re estate of Amos (deceased)  EWHC 1063 (Ch) decided on 30 April 2020, follows a tragic accident involving Mr and Mrs Amos. Mrs Amos, 74, was convicted of causing the death of her husband, who was 81, by careless driving following a multi-car accident on the M4. They had been on their way from Wales to Kent to attend a funeral; that of Mr Amos’ sister. Mr Amos became unwell and they had to turn back. On the way, Mrs Amos, who was driving, collided with a queue of stationary traffic and sadly her husband died shortly after the accident in hospital.
Mr Amos left a will leaving his estate to his wife, but in the event that she didn’t survive him, to other family members.
The question for the court was, did the Forfeiture Act apply to causing death by careless driving so that Mrs Amos was prevented from inheriting her husband’s estate? If the answer was yes, then the Act would also by implication apply in cases of dangerous driving.
The Judge decided that the Act did apply, but that Mrs Amos should not suffer from the effect of the rule. She was entitled to have ‘relief from forfeiture’ and so was allowed to inherit. Relevant factors that the judge considered were:
- Mrs Amos had been driving for a very long period of time;
- it had been dark and raining;
- she had entered a guilty plea at the first opportunity;
- she had worked hard in creating the family home;
- two of the beneficiaries who stood to benefit if the rule was applied had not contested Mrs Amos’ claim.
Before this case, it had not been thought that the forfeiture rule applied to careless or dangerous driving offences. There are many hundreds of convictions each year for these offences and so it seems likely that we will see more of these applications.
It’s important to be aware that the application for relief from forfeiture needs to be made quickly; The Act specifies that proceedings must be brought before the expiry of the period of three months beginning with the date of conviction.
In the second reported case this year, Challen v Challen 27 May 2020 the Judge HHJ Matthews described the background as “extraordinary [with] a fatal combination of conditions and events”. In this case, relief from forfeiture was granted despite the applicant, Sally Challen, having pleaded guilty to manslaughter of her husband with a resulting sentence of over nine years of imprisonment. Very much in her favour was the factor that she had suffered 40 years of coercive control that resulted in diminished responsibility for the offence, which was committed in 2010. The two defendants in the case were Sally Challen’s sons, who actually supported their mother. They would inherit their father’s estate if their mother was not granted relief. In fact, it was clear that she wanted them to keep the money, but on the basis that she would receive it first in order to avoid the estate having to pay approximately £270,000 inheritance tax. Relief was granted by the judge – but it should be stressed that this was an exceptional case, and unlike the Amos case, it’s unlikely to result in many other successful applications in cases involving manslaughter.