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In a great many jurisdictions in Australia and the world, there is a doctrine which broadly states that a person who has committed a crime cannot benefit from the crime. More specifically, a person who kills another cannot inherit their assets.

In the United States, the law is colloquially known as the ‘Slayer Statute’ and reads “[a]n individual who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent forfeits all benefits with respect to the decedent’s estate.” In the state of Mississippi, this statute was tested by a murderer who was found to be mentally ill and unfit to stand trial.

Joan McCorkindale Armstrong was an 80-year-old retired nurse who lived in Mississippi.  Those close to her knew that she always had problems with her son John, a paranoid schizophrenic.  Some of her friends feared that John would one day harm her.

On Aug. 7, 2010, Joan received calls from John’s neighbors who were worried about their children’s safety because John had been acting erratically.  At 5:30 p.m., local police responding to 911 call at Joan’s home were greeted by John at the door covered in his mother’s blood.  He had bashed her head in with a crochet-covered brick.  Then he had repeatedly stabbed her, apparently meaning to drain all of the blood from her body to prepare her for burial.   After admitting to the officers that he’d killed his mother, John was indicted for murder.  However, following a mental evaluation, the court found that John wasn’t competent to stand trial and committed him to a state hospital where he continues to undergo treatment.  Despite John’s incapacity to stand trial, the trial court found that John had “willfully” killed his mother based on the meaning of that term, even though no conviction was recorded, and disinherited him.  John appealed the order to the state Supreme Court.

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The Mississippi Supreme Court held that “[b]ecause an insane person lacks the requisite ability willfully to kill another person, the Slayer Statute is not applicable in cases where the killer is determined to be insane at the time of the killing.”  While the case record revealed that John had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and had suffered from hallucinations and delusions for more than two decades, the record was silent as to his mental state at the time of the killing.  The court remanded the case to the trial court to review and consider all evidence which would illuminate whether the killing was willful before again determining whether John could inherit under Joan’s will.

Gerard Baden Clay, convicted of killing his wife, cannot inherit her assets.

Gerard Baden Clay, convicted of killing his wife, cannot inherit her assets.

In Queensland, the same doctrine is enshrined in common law, known as the Forfeiture Rule. A recent example of the rule being applied, and a case in which Mitchells Solicitors was involved, tested whether the common law forfeiture rule extended to someone who’d assisted a suicide.

Francis Ward died on 20 June 2009 as the result of a drug overdose. His estate is valued at approximately $140,000. By a “home made” will of 5 August 2007, he revoked a prior will, appointed Mr Merin Nielsen as his executor, and left his estate to Mr Nielsen. Mr Nielsen had travelled to Mexico at the request of Mr Ward, where he purchased the drug Pentobarbital. Mr Nielsen provided the drug to Mr Ward forthwith upon his arrival back in Australia, and it was the ingestion of that drug which led to the death. The deceased had a long-standing fear of being disabled to the point where he could not function independently. He had resolved, some years before his death, to take his own life should his perception of his situation reach that point. He independently sought the assistance of his friend Mr Nielsen once he had made the decision to terminate his own life. At the time the decision was made the evidence of a neighbour was that he was unable to even take out his own rubbish. The medical evidence from the autopsy disclosed a number of life threatening medical conditions. The death certificate lists in fact four causes of death, of which Pentobarbital toxicity is only one.

The Chief Justice considered the application of the common law forfeiture rule, in circumstances where Mr Nielsen, named as executor and beneficiary under the will of the deceased Mr Ward, had assisted Mr Ward to commit suicide, and had been convicted of that under s.311(c) of the Criminal Code.

His Honour referred to Troja v Troja (1994) 33 NSWLR 269, and also to the decision of the English Court of Appeal in Dunbar v Plant [1998] Ch 412 in which it was held that the common law forfeiture rule was not confined to cases of murder and manslaughter, and extended to assisting suicide.

The Chief Justice held that Mr Nielsen’s interest under the will was forfeited.  There existed no discretion for the Court not to apply the forfeiture rule; the rule ‘is inflexible and absolute; absent statutory change’.  … ‘In this State, the law is clear.  A person who assists the suicide of someone else cannot act as that person’s executor, or take an interest in his or her estate.  The court has no discretion to modify the application of that rule.’

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