Woman wins appeals against murder conviction, and can now inherit from her husband’s estate

Sally Challen was convicted of the murder of her husband in 2011. In 2019 she successfully appealed the conviction on the grounds of her spouse’s coercive and controlling behaviour, and she admitted to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. She was sentenced to 9 years, and having served 8 years she was treated as having fully served her sentence and released.

However, this led to the question as to whether she should benefit under his estate of whether the Forfeiture Rule should apply. There is a rule of law, known as the Forfeiture Rule, which prevents someone inheriting from someone whom they have unlawfully killed. In short, they forfeit any inheritance that they would have been entitled to, under a Will or the Intestacy Rules, should they not have committed the crime. 

In this case the Judge had to decide whether or not Sally Challen should benefit from her husband’s estate; he had died intestate. Her two children supported her claim, despite the fact a successful claim would effect their inheritance. One of the reasons for their support was that if their mother did inherit there would be no inheritance tax payable. 

The Judge ruled that Justice required him to waive the forfeiture rule, but caveat the ruling stating they were extraordinary circumstances.

Nevertheless, the matter may not be concluded. Sally Challen decided to disclaim the inheritance, and so would receive nothing but the children would still benefit from the tax-free inheritance. It now remains to be seen how HMRC view this decision, and whether it is a lifetime gift. HMRC were asked, prior to proceedings, whether they wanted to join but they did not reply. 

Sally Challen, who served eight years in prison before her conviction was overturned, is to inherit his estate after the England and Wales High Court decided to waive the forfeiture rule in her favour.

Challen was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011 after being convicted of murdering her husband. Last year, she successfully appealed the conviction on the hitherto unknown grounds of her spouse's coercive and controlling behaviour, instead admitting to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. For that offence, she was sentenced to a nine-year prison sentence, which was treated as fully served so that she was immediately released from custody.

Her husband having died intestate, the question then arose as to whether she was entitled to inherit his estate or whether the forfeiture rule should apply on the common-law principle that a wrongdoer should not benefit through his or her own wrongdoing. This rule can be waived by the courts under the UK Forfeiture Act 1982 in appropriate circumstances, the most recent case being Amos v Mancini (2020 EWHC 1063 Ch), concerning an elderly woman whose careless driving caused her husband's accidental death. Some earlier cases have tended to involve either suicide pacts (Dunbar v Plant 1998 Ch 412) or ‘mercy killings’.

The Challen case is closer to Dalton v Latham (2003 EWHC 796 Ch) in which the claimant strangled the deceased, was convicted on his own plea of manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility, and was sentenced to six years in jail. His application for waiving of the forfeiture rule was rejected. In another more recent case, Chadwick v Collinson (2014 EWHC 3055 Ch), a man who stabbed both his partner and their son also pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, and was made the subject of a hospital order. The forfeiture rule was also held to apply in this case because his culpability justified the application of the forfeiture rule, and that there were no good reasons to waive it. However, in Re H (1990 1 FLR 441), the court agreed to waive the forfeiture rule for a man who killed his wife while he was severely depressed and on anti-depressant drugs, because he bore no responsibility for his actions.

The judge in the Challen case had to take different considerations into account. In particular, the other parties concerned, the two children of Sally and Richard Challen, supported their mother's claim, even though its failure would mean they would inherit their father's estate, including the jointly held matrimonial home. A significant reason for this was that, if Sally Challen inherited the estate, no inheritance tax would be payable, whereas it was payable in full if the property went direct to the children. In fact, Sally Challen disclaimed any interest in actually recovering inheritance from her sons, but said she wished them to benefit from the tax-free inheritance that she would have had.

This consideration overrode any other in determining the overall justice of the case, even that of culpability, ruled the judge, Matthews HHJ. 'The exercise of my discretion under the 1982 Act is not about whether there was criminal responsibility for the killing', he said. 'There clearly was, and that has been dealt with in the criminal proceedings. Instead it is about whether the justice of the case requires that the forfeiture rule relating to the inheritance of property be disapplied to the facts of the case.'

Matthews concluded that justice required him to waive the forfeiture rule, but added the usual warning that his decision was specific to the facts. 'Of course, this does not mean that any person suffering from the effects of coercive control should expect...to have the forfeiture rule disapplied in case she or he should kill the person exercising such control... I emphasise that the facts of this terrible case are so extraordinary ... that I would not expect them easily to be replicated in any other'.

Sally Challen's disclaimer of any interest in actually recovering the inheritance now raises the question as to whether this amounts to, in effect, a lifetime gift from her to her sons and, if so, from what date. In fact, HM Revenue & Customs was asked several months before the hearing if it wished to be joined to the proceedings, in view of the inheritance tax consequences of the case. It did not respond.