Peter Thomson and his wife, Sheila Mary Thomson, were a loving and devoted lifelong married couple who had no children. He was 84 and had recently been diagnosed with prostrate cancer and had a grossly enlarged aorta which could rupture at any time. She was aged 88 and, due to the severity of her dementia, had been consigned to live in a care home. They had both made similarly worded wills in favour of each other and, on the death of the survivor, for the benefit of charities and friends. According to the findings of fact made by the coroner, on 18 April 2015 Peter collected Sheila from her care home, drove her to their favourite restaurant for lunch, then took her to their house and, having heavily sedated her, suffocated her before proceeding to hang himself. A letter addressed to the coroner signed by Peter recorded that he and his wife had previously discussed the future and concluded that when their normal lives were over it would be better for both of them to bring their lives to a close whilst still capable of doing so. Unfortunately, however, there was no evidence of assent by Sheila and, due to her dementia, she was unable to give any consent to taking her own life. Accordingly, being an assisted suicide, the conclusion was reached that Sheila had been unlawfully killed although, for obvious reasons, it was reported that Peter had not been convicted of the murder of his wife. As regards the succession to her estate, the rule of common law known as the ‘forfeiture rule’ applied to prevent Peter from inheriting from Sheila and under the intestacy rules distant relatives from her side of the family would be the beneficiaries. With the agreement of the named beneficiaries under both wills an application was brought by the claimant against the executors for an order pursuant to s2 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 that the estate of Peter be granted full relief from forfeiture in respect of his interests in Sheila’s estate; alternatively a declaration that under true construction of s33A of the Wills Act 1837 (as amended) Sheila’s will should take effect on the basis that Peter be treated as having died immediately before her. None of the distant relatives of Sheila sought to challenge the claim. Sheila’s estate had a probate value of £608,752 of which some £350,000 comprised her half share in the house.
Held (allowing the claim):
The Forfeiture Act 1982 conferred a discretion on the court to make an order modifying the effect of the rule if it was satisfied that, having regard to the conduct of the offender and of the deceased and to such other circumstances as appeared material, the justice of the case required the effect of the rule to be so modified. As regards the conduct of Peter and Sheila, the findings followed those made by the coroner and, as regards ‘other circumstances’, obiter dicta in Dunbar v Plant provided a set of seven additional factors that were of relevance. These focused on the loving relationship between the couple, the apparent belief of Peter that he was acting in Sheila’s best interests by assisting with her death, the unlawful killing was carried out without cruelty, the absence of evidence as to Sheila’s wishes at the time of her death, the size of the estate was not insignificant, no financial benefit was achieved by Peter from the death of his wife and there was no moral basis on which those entitled to take the property on intestacy could have a claim over the estate. In addition, unlike most other cases which concerned the legal and moral claims of children, in this case Peter and Sheila had no children and it appeared that that their lives were given over to each other and the beneficiaries were for the most part charities. Having regard to all of the circumstances, the justice of the case should permit Sheila’s wishes to be put into effect, albeit through Peter’s will. Accordingly, an order would be made modifying the application of the forfeiture rule such that the estate of Peter be granted full relief from forfeiture in respect of the estate of Sheila. As it was unnecessary to go further and consider the alternative ground for relief there would be no order.JUDGMENT HHJ MARK RAESIDE QC: Introduction  In this case Macmillan Cancer Support (the charity) brings proceedings against Christopher Charles Edward Hayes and Charles Ian Long in their capacity as executors of the estates of Sheila Mary Thompson (deceased), and Peter Thompson (deceased) to receive charitable donations provided for under Sheila and Peter Thompson’s wills. …