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High Court Rules Wife Who Accompanied Husband To Dignitas Can Inherit His Estate

Sarah Ninian Was Sole Beneficiary Of £1.8 Million Estate

22.02.2019

Jenny Batchelor, Press Officer | 0207 421 3951

The High Court has ruled on a case which allowed a wife to inherit her husband’s £1.8m fortune, despite accompanying him to his assisted suicide at Dignitas.

Sarah Ninian accompanied her husband Alex Ninian, a retired businessman, to Dignitas in Switzerland and he died in November 2017. Mr Ninian had been diagnosed with an incurable progressive disease in 2013 and was too ill to travel to Dignitas alone.

After her husband’s death Mrs Ninian faced a police enquiry, who found that despite having sufficient evidence to prosecute her for the crime of assisting with her husband’s suicide, it would not be in the public interest to press charges.

Mrs Ninian then faced the dreaded issue of the forfeiture rule and was at risk of being barred from inheriting. The forfeiture rule is the rule of public policy which in certain circumstances precludes a person who has unlawfully killed another, or encouraged or assisted the suicide of another person from acquiring a benefit in consequence of the killing. This could put families in significant financial hardship, and result in them losing the family home or any other assets in the deceased’s name, creating an even more devastating situation.

However, the High Court found this week that Mrs Ninian could inherit her husband’s estate after taking into consideration Mr Ninian’s clear decision to end his life, her attempts to dissuade him, her full cooperation with the police and the decision of the CPS not to prosecute Mrs Ninian.

Will disputes specialists at leading national law firm Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth have said the case provides some welcome clarity on the issue of assisted dying.

Expert Opinion
“Having to come to terms with the fact that a loved one has a terminal illness and wants to plan to end their own life is something nobody ever wants to go through. At a time when families are dealing with all the range of emotions following their death, they then have to deal with the potential for criminal charges and the real possibility that they might not be able to inherit from them due to the provisions of the forfeiture rule. Accordingly, it’s important to plan not just for the person who wants to end their life but the people left behind.

“This is an area of law which has been considered in the Supreme Court and is on the radar of politicians to review the laws around assisted dying to bring them into the 21st century. Therefore, the recent judgment from the High Court provides helpful guidance for families who finding themselves in this very sad position.

Each family’s circumstances will be different but this case highlights the need to take sound independent legal advice in order to protect the person wishing to end their life and those family members who may be considered to be criminally liable for encouraging or assisting the suicide (or attempted suicide) of their loved one.

“If you or a loved one are considering the possibility of an accompanied suicide at Dignitas or elsewhere, it is important to devise a well-considered plan not only from a medical perspective but also from legal perspective in order to protect those who you would wish to avoid any criminal culpability and to inherit your estate.”
Claire-Marie Cornford, Partner