What is the impact of assisted suicide on a Will?
25 March 2019 by Lauren Hancock
In February, Chief Master Marsh heard the case of Ninian –v- Findlay, an emotionally charged and highly contentious matter considering the implications of assisted suicide on the rules of inheritance.
Mr Ninian, a successful travel, writer married his wife in 1983. After a long and happy marriage, in 2013 Mr Ninian was diagnosed with Progressive Supra-nuclear Palsy (PSP). PSP is an uncommon and progressive brain disorder characterised by a loss of balance, impaired vision and alterations of mood. Suffers of PSP are usually rendered severely disabled within a period of five years from onset. There is currently no effective treatment for the condition.
Following his diagnosis, in 2016 Mr Ninian began investigating assisted suicide. Mrs Ninian made numerous attempts to dissuade her husband from this course of action; including the involvement of a number of specialist doctors who she hoped may change his mind.
As his condition progressed, Mr Ninian began to lose movement in his hands and eyes & suffered increasing difficulty in swallowing. By September 2017, and despite ongoing attempts by Mrs Ninian to discourage her husband, arrangements were made for the two of them to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland to enable him to end his life.
On 13 November 2017, Mr and Mrs Ninian made the journey to Switzerland; where on the 16 November, Mr Ninian passed away. The Court recognised that Mrs Ninian provided no direct assistance in administering the substances which killed Mr Ninian. They were however faced with a moral and legal dilemma given her considerable involvement in arranging and assisting her husband with the trip.
It is not unlawful to commit suicide in England and Wales; however, it is an offence to assist the suicide of another. Such an offence is punishable by a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment. Not only this, those who have ‘unlawfully’ killed another (including by assisting in the suicide of another) forfeit any right to benefit from their unlawful action.
This means that, though Mrs Ninian was named as the sole beneficiary of her husband’s Estate, the Courts were forced to decide whether she had forfeited her right to inherit from his assets.
The Court was provided with a detailed statement from Mr Ninian which expressly stated his intentions. After considering the same and given that Mrs Ninian had actively discouraged her husband from going through with the act of assisted suicide, Chief Master Marsh recognised that the moral culpability on the part of Mrs Ninian was limited. Despite this, he concluded that she had committed a criminal offence and as such, on the face of it had forfeited her right to inherit from her husband’s Estate.
The Court was therefore left to decide whether, given the nature of the case, they could waive the implications of the forfeiture rule. After considering all of the evidence and noting the strength of the relationship of the couple, Mrs Ninian’s attempts to discourage her husband and the clear evidence of Mr Ninian’s intentions, Chief Master Marsh decided that Mrs Ninian would be allowed to inherit from her husband’s Estate.
With the issue of assisted suicide so polarising, it is not a surprise that the Courts are faced with difficult questions like the one that arose in this case.
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