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The Right To Inherit After Assisted Suicide

Reasons to choose Wilson Browne

The Forfeiture Act 1982 prevents a person who has unlawfully killed another, or unlawfully aided, abetted, counselled or procured their death, from obtaining a benefit as result of the killing, subject to the court’s discretion.

We do see cases where those who are responsible for the death of another forfeit any entitlement to an Estate.

In the UK, assisting a person to commit suicide can leave you open to the risk of prosecution and cases where those who have taken relatives to Dignitas Clinics abroad are often reported to be questioned by the police.  Just recently Ann Whaley, whose husband Geoffrey Whaley decided to go to Dignitas in Switzerland was reported to have been interviewed twice by the police.

In a recent case, the High Court has determined that a widow who accompanied her husband to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland for his assisted death could inherit his Estate.

In 2013 Alex Ninian was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, an incurable fatal disease.  He was 80 when he was diagnosed and 4 years later, his condition having deteriorated significantly, he decided to seek assistance from Dignitas to end his life. Mr Ninian was too disabled by his illness to go alone and was accompanied by his wife Sarah.

As is often the case, when she returned to the UK, Mrs Ninian was at significant risk of prosecution for assisting a suicide. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) made a decision on public interest grounds not to.   Mr Ninian’s lawyers provided a written statement confiring that Mrs Ninian had been opposed to her husband’s decision, had not pressurised him to make it, and only accompanied him to Zurich because he could not travel there unaided.

Mrs Ninan was the sole beneficiary of her late husband’s Will.  She sought a declaration from the Court that the rules in the Forfeiture Act 1982 should be waived in her case.

The Court accepted her request after hearing that Alex Ninian had made a clear decision to end his life, that she had tried to dissuade him for many months, that she was wholly motivated by compassion, and that she had cooperated fully with the police. The CPS’ decision not to prosecute also counted as ‘a powerful factor in favour of the grant of relief’, said the Judge.

Given the increasing number of people attending Dignitas and similar clinics for assistance with dying, this case is very welcome.  Whilst it cannot be said that this would be the outcome in all cases, it reflects a willingness on the part of the Court to accept the difference between those who assist a dying relative in giving effect to their wish to end their life as they choose and those who actively take a life.

Those who are considering assisted dying are well advised to take careful legal advice before doing so.  This not only allows them to ensure their affairs are in order but can provide valuable evidence to protect those left behind who may have been called upon to help them.  Family members may be considered to be criminally liable for encouraging or assisting the suicide and a careful plan – not just in respect of travel arrangements – can provide essential protection for them.