2nd April 2024

Taylor Swift and the forfeiture rule

As Taylor Swift-mania eases in Australia, the lyrics of her recent hit ‘Anti-Hero’ ring clearly in the ears of wills and estates practitioners.

In the song, Taylor muses:

“I have this dream my daughter in-law kills me for the money

She thinks I left them in the will

The family gathers 'round and reads it and then someone screams out

"She's laughing up at us from hell"

Putting aside that will-readings are rare in Victorian practice, the song touches upon a well-established principle established in 1892; that a person who kills a testator (a will-maker) cannot benefit from the crime.[1]

Known as the forfeiture rule, the rule applies in cases of murder, manslaughter and in more modern instances, assistance in suicide[2].

Courts have considered whether the beneficiary’s degree of culpability should apply in determining whether the forfeiture rule should apply; for example, where the killing was defensive. The results have been mixed, with some beneficiaries allowed to inherit despite their actions, but currently, both New South Wales and Victoria have determined that culpability is not a consideration – an unlawful killing is an unlawful killing and attracts the operation of the rule.[3]

In Re Edwards [2014] VSC 392,the Victorian Supreme Court sympathised with Mrs Edwards, who had committed defensive homicide against her husband, having suffered a history of domestic violence at his hands. Faced with a threat to set her on fire to disfigure her, Mrs Edwards panicked and attempted to defend herself with a spear gun (which had previously been used against her) and a knife. Notwithstanding the apparent sympathy for Mrs Edwards, the Court found that she was prevented from inheriting under her husband’s Will.  

The UK system is a little more flexible, having in-built exceptions to the forfeiture rule. In 2011, Sally Chellen was convicted of killing her husband. Her conviction was overturned in 2019 when the Court established she had been subjected to coercive control (a form of family violence, and a criminal offence). In May 2020, the High Court ruled she could benefit from her husband’s estate.

With such limited prospects of success, Taylor’s future daughter-in-law would be ill-advised to take her expected inheritance into her own hands.

For any advice regarding wills and estates, please contact our office on (03) 9646 4477.

[1] Cleaver v Mutual Reserve Fund Life Associate [1892] 1 QB 147

[2] Public Trustee of Queensland (as a Corporation Sole) v Public Trustee of Queensland(as manager of Estate of Nielsen) [2015] 1 Qd R 601

[3] Troja vTroja (1994) 33 NSWLR 269, Re Estate of Soukup (1997) 97 A CrimR 103

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