Mercy killing and relief from forfeiture: Withers Trust Corporation v Estate of Goodman [2023] EWHC 2780 (Ch)

November 9, 2023

In an emotionally charged but legally important recent decision, the High Court granted full relief from the forfeiture rule in the context of a ‘mercy killing’.

The executor of the estate of the late Adrian Berry applied for relief from the forfeiture rule after Mr. Berry assisted in the death of his terminally ill wife, Hannah Goodman, before himself committing suicide. Absent relief from forfeiture, Mr. Berry’s estate would have been barred by the forfeiture rule from receiving any benefit from his wife’s estate due to his role in her death.

The court examined detailed personal documents, including an apparent suicide note and a eulogy prepared by Mr. Berry, which indicated that his actions in taking Ms. Goodman’s life were carried out with extreme reluctance and as an act of final compassion at his wife’s own behest. With no other recourse to alleviate her suffering, Mr. Berry’s actions were held to have been a last resort.

Recognising Mr. Berry’s minimal moral culpability, Master McQuail granted full relief from forfeiture. This permitted Mr. Berry’s estate to receive the benefit of Ms. Goodman’s estate, as well as her share of a jointly owned property.

Both Mr. Berry and Mrs. Goodman had wished their estates to pass to charity, and had prepared their wills accordingly. However, Mrs. Goodman’s will was drafted in a way that did not attract the charitable relief under s.23 of the Inheritance Tax Act 1984. By contrast, Mr. Berry’s will did engage the relief. The result of the court’s order granting relief from forfeiture was therefore to enable the estate to pass to the couple’s intended charitable beneficiary, free of Inheritance Tax.

The judgment illustrates the court’s broad discretion when considering whether to grant relief from forfeiture, requiring it to consider the conduct of the deceased and the offender, alongside the broader circumstances of the case. It is a useful precedent as to the application of the Forfeiture Act 1982 to cases of unlawful killing motivated by mercy and compassion. It also shows the critical importance of precision when drafting a charitable bequest in a will, so as to ensure that the charitable exemption from IHT is available.

Andrew Holden acted as counsel for the Claimant, instructed by Withers LLP.

To read the full judgment, please click here.