Editorial comment: Inheritance

Anomaly must be closed

 

Few people would ever have imagined that someone who killed his or her spouse and who was convicted of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter, could potentially benefit financially from that crime – by later successfully claiming their share of some of the victim’s assets.

A loophole in the law, however, made that possible. It was identified following the killing of Celine Cawley by her husband Eamonn Lillis in 2008. The Cawley family subsequently went to court and sought to prevent the offender from inheriting Ms Cawley’s share of the family home, which both had co-owned.

Under the Succession Act 1965, those found guilty of such lethal crimes, cannot inherit any part of the estate of their victim. However, property held in joint tenancy passes directly on the death of one joint owner to the surviving joint owner. Because the property is not considered part of the assets of the deceased’s estate, the Succession Act does not cover it.

The right of survivorship applies regardless of how tragic the background circumstances may be – even as in this case where one co-owner has killed his spouse.

Ms Justice Laffoy, in her judgment in the Lillis case, modified the survivorship rule. She decided that the interest of the deceased should be held by the surviving spouse – the killer – in trust for the daughter of the deceased. The judge also called for a review to clarify the current law in order to remove doubt and uncertainty.

The Law Reform Commission has completed that review and proposed comprehensive draft legislation – both to close the loophole in the law relating to joint tenancy and to ensure that convicted killers cannot gain from their wrongdoing, by benefiting from any of the property of their victim – such as a life insurance policy, a pension, or the family home. It is impossible to legislate for every eventuality.

However, when a major loophole in the law has been identified – as in this instance – the Oireachtas now needs to act quickly to close it.

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