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Wills and Murder!

Anyone who enjoys a detective story from the golden age of detective writing will be familiar with those scenes when the grave-faced solicitor gathers the family around the dining table and tells the expectant beneficiaries of the Will that they have been cut out of the Will made only a few days earlier and the considerable estate has been left to the person who is suspected to be the murderer. And then Monsieur Poirot steps in …

Earlier this year something called the Estates of Deceased Persons (Forfeiture Rules and Law of Succession) Act was passed. Not quite a catchy title but of some interest all the same.

The purpose of the Act is to change an old Common Law rule. A murderer cannot benefit from his own crime and so he (or she) is not entitled to inherit from the estate of the person they have killed. Well, that seems reasonable, doesn’t it? But there can be a problem. For example, a Will may say a husband leaves his estate to his wife and then to his son “if his wife dies before him”. A very basic form of Will. The wife, for whatever reason at the end of her tether, kills the husband. Now the wife as the murderer (or murderess) cannot benefit from her husband’s estate. Fair enough, and you would assume then that the son will inherit in his mother’s place. Sadly not, because the Will states that he inherits if his mother dies before his father. She has not and therefore the condition for the son inheriting has not applied.

A similar situation arises where a person does not leave a Will and therefore dies “intestate”. Here is a true case. Two parents were murdered by their son. The son also had a son and the murdered father was survived by a sister. The son could not inherit because he couldn’t benefit from his own crime. So, surely his son – the grandson – would inherit instead? Again, no. The grandson could only inherit under the intestacy rules if his own father had died, which of course he hadn’t. It was the aunt (the deceased’s sister) who inherited.

So this new Act provides that if there is an intestacy or a Will (and the Will does not provide to the contrary) the person whose interest has been forfeited (eg. the murderer) will be deemed to have died before the deceased. Therefore in the case mentioned the grandson would have inherited and not the aunt. Probably fairer.

Now back to that Agatha Christie …

By Adam Rice