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    9 April 2021

    Contested Probate and the Forfeiture Rule

    Like me, many of you will have been turning to video streaming services in your spare time during lockdown 3.0. This weekend, I watched White House Farm on Netflix which was originally broadcast on ITV. It’s safe to say, I was hooked from the first episode and I am not ashamed to admit, I watched the full series over the course of the weekend. So, you are probably thinking, why is a solicitor writing about what she has been watching at the weekend?

    The story made me think about an interesting legal question, as a contested probate practitioner, regarding the forfeiture rule. What is the forfeiture rule? The forfeiture rule is a law that prevents a convicted person from benefitting from their crime.

    The case of Jeremy Bamber

    White House Farm is based on a true story and the events that took place on 7 August 1985, in a small village in Essex. On that night, a chilling crime took place that both horrified and gripped the nation. Five members of the Bamber family were found murdered in their farmhouse. The victims were Shelia Caffell, her twin sons, Daniel and Nicholas and her adoptive parents, Nevill and June Bamber.

    Jeremy Bamber, Nevill and June’s adoptive son and only surviving family member, alerted Chelmsford Police after he said he had received a distressing phone call from his father. The police originally suspected Shelia had committed murder-suicide as she is reported to have been suffering with mental health problems. However, Jeremy was later convicted of murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. It appears that Jeremy was motivated by hatred and greed, as he was set to inherit a small fortune from his family’s estate. A month after the murders had taken place, Jeremy’s girlfriend, Julie Mugford, came forward to the police and told them he had previously spoken about killing his family, so that he could inherit the £500,000.00 farm estate. To this day, Jeremy continues to protest his innocence.

    In the series, before Jeremy is arrested and charged, you see him rummaging around the farmhouse and Shelia’s property for valuable items to sell. So, all of this got me thinking – what would happen to the family estate in this kind of situation? Here we have someone who has murdered his whole family and is the sole beneficiary of their estate. Surely, it cannot be right that he benefits financially from his heinous crime.

    The last Will and testament

    Nevill and June’s estate had been left to Jeremy and Shelia, in equal shares. As you may expect, how the estate was to be distributed became very messy, however my focus in this article is going to be on what happened to Jeremy’s share and why.

    Jeremy did not inherit his share of the estate due to the ancient, common law “forfeiture rule”. In this case, as Jeremy was found to have unlawfully killed his family, he was unable to benefit from their death.

    The law was mainly established to deal with these types of scenarios i.e., to prevent convicted murderers from being able to inherit their victim/s estate.

    Would a murder conviction always prevent the murder from benefiting from the estate of their victim? In accordance with public policy and the forfeiture rule, they should be prevented from inheriting. However, the Court does have discretion to modify the rule if they are satisfied that based on the conduct of the offender, the circumstances the case requires the effect of the rule to be modified.

    I think we can all agree in the Jeremey Bamber case, the forfeiture rule was applied correctly, but there may be other cases where it may not be so clear cut.

    The case of Sally Challen

    The case of Sally Challen hit headlines last year, after she struck her husband on the back of the head, killing him. Mrs Challen suffered decades of humiliation and emotional abuse at the hands of Mr Challen, with him frequently being unfaithful during the marriage. Mrs Challen has been prevented from inheriting her husband’s estate, due to the forfeiture rule. However, the Judge ruled that an exception should be made as the facts of the case were “extraordinary, tragic and one would hope rare”. The Judge specifically said that without Mr Challen’s appalling behaviour over so many years, Mr Challen would not have killed him. The Judge emphasised that the forfeiture rule would not automatically be disapplied in cases where a person is suffering from coercive and controlling a relationship. Every case will need to be considered on its own facts and merits.

    Cases involving the forfeiture rule are relatively rare, but as can be seen in the Sally Challen case, the Court have been asked to modify the rule in cases where its application would otherwise be manifestly unjust.

    Our Contested Probate specialists offer an initial agreed fee consultation to discuss your situation and your options moving forwards. If you have concerns about the forfeiture rule or would like to discuss any of the topics raised in this article, please call Emerald on 01603 598000 or email epriscott@steeleslaw.co.uk.

    *The information provided in this article is designed to provide useful information on the subject, not to provide specific legal advice.




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