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The High Court has recently made an important decision in the case of Withers Trust Incorporation v Estate of Goodman  EWHC 2780 (Ch) after Master McQuail exercised the Court’s discretion to modify the forfeiture rule and granted full relief in the circumstances of a ‘mercy killing’.
The forfeiture rule prevents a person who has unlawfully killed another from benefiting from their estate. Section 2 of The Forfeiture Act 1982 does however give the court the power to modify the effect of this rule and grant relief.
An application was made by the Personal Representatives of the Estate of the late Adrian Berry for relief from the forfeiture rule following his involvement in helping his terminally ill wife in ending her life before then taking his own. In the absence of relief from forfeiture Mr Berry’s estate would have been prevented under the forfeiture rule from receiving any benefit from his wife’s estate.
The Court felt able to modify the rule, giving consideration to the facts of the case and the relevant guidance. After examination of documents such as Mrs Goodman’s medical records and the note and eulogy left by Mr Berry, it was apparent that Mr Berry’s actions were carried out with ‘extreme reluctance’ and as an act of ‘desperation and as a ‘last resort’, being that there was no other way in which he could help ease his wife’s pain and suffering. It was evident that this all caused him ‘unimaginable distress’ and he was not able to live with what he had done. The medical records also indicated that Mrs Goodman’s wish and intention was to end her life and she made it clear that this was what she wanted.
Master McQuail found Mr Berry’s moral culpability to be extremely low and full relief was granted. This allowed Mr Berry’s estate to receive the benefit of his wife’s estate.
Mr Berry and Mrs Goodman had both ultimately wanted their estates to pass to charity as made clear in their wills. However, the charitable gift in Mrs Goodman’s will was not eligible for exemption from inheritance tax due to the way the will was drafted meaning that a large sum of inheritance tax would have been payable, whereas the gift in Mr Berry’s will was eligible for exemption. Therefore by allowing full relief from the forfeiture rule, the gift to the charity could be made free of inheritance tax.
The above article is for illustrative purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any part of the information given.