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Court Permits Wife Who Unlawfully Killed Her Husband to Inherit His Assets

Few would quarrel with the long-standing rule of law that anyone who unlawfully kills another is barred from benefiting, financially or otherwise, from his or her crime. In a unique decision, however, the High Court waived that rule in the case of an elderly wife who caused her beloved husband's death by her careless driving.

The wife, who was in her 70s, was driving her husband home after they got lost on the way to his sister's funeral. She had been behind the wheel for several hours; the conditions were wet and the light was fading. She drove at speed into a line of traffic at a roundabout, triggering a four-vehicle pile-up. Her husband, aged 81, was fatally injured. She subsequently pleaded guilty to causing his death by careless driving and received a 32-week suspended prison sentence.

Under her husband's will, the wife would ordinarily have received the whole of his estate. As they jointly owned their home, his share in the property would also have automatically passed to her. Her entire inheritance was, however, placed in jeopardy by Section 1 of the Forfeiture Act 1982, which enshrines the rule that certain circumstances preclude a person who has unlawfully killed another from acquiring a benefit in consequence of the killing.

In arguing that the rule did not apply to her, the wife pointed out that her crime was not deliberate or intentional and that the death of her partner of 30 years was as much a tragedy for her as for anyone else. The Court acknowledged that the case raised issues on which there was no previous authority, but found that the forfeiture rule applies as much to those who cause deaths by careless or dangerous driving as it does to perpetrators of murder or manslaughter.

However, the Court decided that, on the particular facts of the case, it would be wrong for the forfeiture rule to apply so as to deprive the wife of the gift her husband had made to her in his will and his share of the matrimonial home, which they had built together. The Court exercised its power under Section 2 of the Act to modify the rule so as to avoid that unjust outcome.