Accidental death: to forfeit or to inherit?

Whatever the circumstances, it is a tragedy when someone’s life is cut short as a result of the actions of another person.

The effects of the tragedy can then spill over into the administration of the estate of the person who died.

In two recent cases, the central issue that arose was that of the forfeiture rule and whether the individual who caused the death or another was entitled to benefit from their estate notwithstanding causing the deceased’s death.

The rule

By way of reminder, the forfeiture rule is a common law principle under which someone who unlawfully kills another cannot inherit from the deceased’s estate for reasons of public policy. However, this is not a blanket rule and there is important relief against forfeiture under the Forfeiture Act 1982. Under the Act, the court has the discretionary power to waive the common law rule.

Section 2 states:

“(1) Where a court determines that the forfeiture rule has precluded a person (in this section referred to as “the offender”) who has unlawfully killed another from acquiring any interest in property… the court may make an order under this section modifying the effect of that rule.

(2) The court shall not make an order under this section modifying the effect of the forfeiture rule in any case unless it is satisfied that, having regard to the conduct of the offender and of the deceased and to such other circumstances as appear to the court to be material, the justice of the case requires the effect of the rule to be so modified in that case.”


The first case of Amos v Mancini 2020 EWHC 1063 is particularly tragic for a number of reasons, not least because an elderly lady caused a car accident which killed her husband.

The background is, briefly, that Mr and Mrs Amos were driving to his sister’s funeral from Wales to Canterbury. Mrs Amos was driving as he felt unwell. Unfortunately, they got lost after a long day’s driving and eventually headed back. The weather took a turn for the worse and it was getting dark, and when Mrs Amos approached a large roundabout she collided with the car in front of her instead of breaking, causing a four-vehicle crash. She lost consciousness and could not later remember why she did not stop.

Despite initially seeming not to be seriously hurt, Mr Amos died later that evening in hospital from multiple traumatic injuries caused in the accident.

Mrs Amos was subsequently convicted of causing death by dangerous driving and sought a declaration from the High Court that the forfeiture rule should not apply to prevent her from inheriting H’s residuary estate under his will. Sadly, her step-daughter – also a beneficiary – contested her claim.

The court considered the authorities which show that the rule applies to all cases of manslaughter. In that vein, Jarman HHJ could not see “a logical distinction in applying the rule to all cases of manslaughter (including those which involve little more than inadvertence) but not to a case of causing death by careless driving”.

He went on: “The observation of Phillips LJ [in Dunbar v Plant [1998] Ch 412] that all cases of manslaughter involves causing the death of someone by criminal conduct applies with equal force in my judgment to an offence of causing death by careless driving. Where in such a case the application of the rule is not just, then the appropriate course is to exercise the powers under the 1982 Act. Accordingly, I conclude that the rule does apply in this case.”

He said it would be unjust for the forfeiture rule to apply, observing that her losses – if he were not to make the declaration - would “be significantly out of proportion to her culpability in the offence in question”.


The second ruling on the forfeiture rule followed a claim by Sally Challen who, in a high-profile case, suffered years of domestic abuse resulting in her killing her husband. Readers will recall she was originally convicted of murder and, on appeal, this was quashed and a manslaughter conviction substituted instead – facilitating her release from prison on the basis of time already served.

Mrs Challen asked the court for a declaration for relief from the forfeiture rule. A significant consequence of granting the relief sought would be a reduction in inheritance tax paid by the estate of the deceased.

In Challen v Challen & Or [2020] EWHC 1330, the first question for Matthews HHJ was whether the forfeiture rule applies to this case at all. He found that even though the evidence established that at the time of the killing she was suffering from psychiatric illness as a result of coercive control, and her original sentences was reduced to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility – it was still a deliberate rather than accidental killing. Therefore, the forfeiture rule applied to the facts of this case.

However, the judge ruled that he should disapply the forfeiture rule in the interests of justice recognising that coercive control is a recognised a social phenomenon as well as a criminal offence. Sally Challen was free to inherit her late husband’s £1m estate.

Though this was the just decision in this case, Matthews HHJ nevertheless made it clear that this did not mean anyone suffering from the effects of coercive control should expect to have the forfeiture rule disapplied if they kill that party. Every case, he emphasised, must be decided on its own merits.

Finally, a note on the tax implications: given that it was Mrs Challen and not her two sons who would now inherit the estate, it would be an exempt transfer for inheritance tax purposes, rather than a chargeable transfer. The ruling means a claim can be made to recover inheritance tax from HMRC which can be repaid to the sons.


Posted on 08.06.20