Can I forfeit my inheritance?

The recent judgement in the case of Ninian v Findlay [2019] reviews the circumstances in which assisting or encouraging a loved one’s death may deprive that person of any legacy they are due under the will of the deceased.

The general rule of forfeiture provides that a beneficiary cannot take under a will if they have unlawfully killed the deceased or aided their death. The effect of the rule is that the beneficiary who has forfeited will be deemed to have predeceased the testator and any gift which was meant for them will usually fall into the residue of the estate. 

This general rule may be modified by the courts where the conduct of the beneficiary and/or the deceased and the other circumstances of the case mean it would be just to do so. 

The tragic case of Ninian v Findlay recently supplemented the law in this area. In brief, the case concerned a wife who was the sole beneficiary under her husband’s will. Her husband, Mr Ninian had died with the assistance of a Dignitas clinic in Switzerland after suffering with a progressive, incurable brain disease for a number of years. 

Mr Ninian had initially contacted Dignitas himself, without the knowledge of his wife, and Mrs Ninian had actively tried to dissuade her husband from committing suicide. However, once it had become clear that Mr Ninian was not going to be discouraged, Mrs Ninian had assisted with some administrative tasks and had accompanied him to Switzerland. The court held that these acts were capable of assisting his suicide and as such, Mrs Ninian would in normal circumstances have forfeited her entitlement under her husband’s will. 

However, the court ruled that these circumstances in this case justified the waiver of the forfeiture rule. Particularly important in the court’s decision was the strong and loving relationship between Mr and Mrs Ninian, that Mrs Ninian had actively discouraged her husband from committing suicide and that Mr Ninian’s intentions were clearly recorded and unambiguous. 

The result of the ruling is that Mrs Ninian again stands to inherit her husband’s £1.8 million estate. 

The rule of forfeiture is one basis on which a probate dispute or will dispute may be bought. Had the court in this case not ruled in favour of Mrs Ninian receiving the legacy due to her under her husband’s will it is possible that the matter could have given rise to further claims against his estate. 

If you would like information about disputing a will, contesting a will, probate disputes, or inheritance disputes, please contact our specialist contentious probate lawyers on 01902 424 927 and ask to speak to either James Coles, Susan Ford or Philippa Rowley, (our contentious probate specialists). Our team at George Green LLP are regarded as one of the Midlands' leading teams of will disputes and contentious probate solicitors.  

We offer a free initial free consultation and we can often act for clients who want to dispute a will or commence an inheritance dispute/probate dispute on a no win no fee basis. Alternatively, please e-mail us at contentiousprobate@georgegreen.co.uk providing a brief summary of the issues you wish to discuss with us, along with your contact details.

We have a dedicated practice team of contentious probate solicitors, covering all areas of the UK as well as Birmingham who are experienced in dealing with all types of contentious probate matters, including challenging a will and estate disputes.