The forfeiture rule is one of long-standing and provides that a person cannot receive a benefit from a deceased’s person estate where that person is criminally liable for the person’s death.
In a recent judgment handed down by Burns J in Savage v Savage & Ors  QSC 280, his Honour described the forfeiture rule as follows:
Another way of expressing the rule would be to say that no person can obtain, or enforce, any rights resulting to him or her by their own crime including any interest the offender might have as beneficiary under the will of the victim.
Can other individuals be impacted by the actions of the murderer?
If there are factors which warrant it, the forfeiture rule precludes not only the murderer to benefit from the wrongful act but also precludes a situation where the murderer’s spouse or child could benefit from the deceased’s will.
How is the forfeiture rule adopted in Australia?
In New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory the forfeiture rule is legislated to enable the Court, if appropriate, to deal with the specific circumstances of each case and evaluate it accordingly. If there are circumstances which justify it, the Court has the power to modify the operation of the forfeiture rule.
In Queensland and Victoria the forfeiture rule is applied by reference to rules established in previous cases.
Burns J was recently required to make a determination in relation to the forfeiture rule in the matter of Savage v Savage.
The case involved an application made by the Executor (the brother of the deceased). Briefly the facts of the case were as follows:
- The deceased was murdered by his daughter, Gail Marie Beazleigh, on 17 July 2000. Ms Beazleigh was sentenced to imprisonment for life on 27 November 2002.
- The deceased left a will whereby he gifted his estate to his 3 children (Steven, Edward and Ms Beazleigh) in equal shares upon them attaining the age of 26 years.
- The deceased’s will included a provision where it was mentioned that if any of his 3 children predeceasing him and having children of their own, that respective 1/3 share would be left to the children in equal shares.
Because Ms Beazleigh was precluded from receiving the 1/3 share, the Executor sought a determination vis-à-vis the construction of the deceased’s will and whether Ms Beazleigh’s children were entitled to receive what would have otherwise been their mother’s share of the deceased’s estate but for her crime.
His Honour repeated the principles that were mentioned by Windeyer J in Ekert v Mereider (1993) 32 NSWLR 729 as follows:
… it would be dangerous for a court to interpret a will based on presumed intentions. The present case would clearly be one of those. I do not see how a court could possibly find that a testator must have intended a child of his murderer (not being a child of his) to take in the event that he was murdered by the child’s mother.
Upon examining all of the facts of the case and the manner in which the deceased’s will was written, his Honour determined that:
- Ms Beazleigh’s children would have been entitled to that 1/3 share but for her murder of the deceased; and
- He could not make a finding that as a matter of necessary implication that the deceased must have intended his gift to his daughter would pass to her children if he was murdered by her.
Therefore, his Honour ordered that Ms Beazleigh’s 1/3 share be distributed to other beneficiaries that were entitled under the deceased’s will.
Seek advice early
The forfeiture rule can have an impact on Executors and beneficiaries in circumstances where consideration needs to be given to entitlements under a will. If the forfeiture rule applies, there are specific steps that must be taken in order to ensure that the administration of the deceased’s estate is dealt with properly.
Costin Stan at FCW Lawyers is a Contested Estates practitioner and is always willing to help you understand what your rights are will always guide to make the best decisions.