We must fix the gaping hole in inheritance law to build a system that properly supports victims of domestic abuse
Recently, a Vauxhall resident contacted me with a case that was scarcely believable. During an advice surgery, he told me that his mother had tragically died of suicide last year following domestic abuse perpetrated by her husband, his stepfather. The coroner ruled that his actions were a direct cause of her suicide.
Prior to her death, she pressed charges and he was convicted of violent offences against her in court. She had also started divorce proceedings to end their marriage and attempted to change her will to reflect this. But due to the profound impact of the abuse on her mental health she was unable to complete the lengthy process of divorcing him, and a legal technicality also meant her new will was deemed invalid.
As a result, her convicted abuser has now unbelievably inherited her family home and full NHS pension from her many years as a GP. This has left my constituent and the rest of the family completely distraught, and compounded the trauma of her death.
Perpetrators of abuse should not be left in any doubt that their actions will have severe consequences
Shocked by the clear injustice of this situation, I urgently wrote to Justice Secretary Dominic Raab to ask whether there was indeed nothing to legally prevent a convicted abuser from profiting from the death of their victim. The government confirmed this position, telling me that “a person is free to take steps, once freed from an abusive relationship, to ensure that the abusive partner was not made a beneficiary by making a will, seeking divorce and addressing joint property rights.”
This advice fails woefully to understand the severe mental health impact that domestic abuse can have on victims. And since I raised this with the Prime Minister last week, I have been contacted by several others with similarly shocking stories around abuse and inheritance as my constituent's.
We need better data to uncover the true scale of this issue, alongside the link between domestic abuse and suicide. But given the Office for National Statistics estimate that well over 2 million people suffer abuse each year in the UK, it is inevitable that there will sadly be many further examples.
This gaping hole in inheritance law must be addressed if we are to build a system that properly supports victims of domestic abuse and their loved ones. Perpetrators of abuse should also not be left in any doubt that their actions will have severe consequences for them, including forfeiting any claim to inheriting from their victims.
There is already precedent for this in murder cases, where the forfeiture rule prevents killers from inheriting from those they murder by default. In his answer at PMQs last week, the Prime Minister agreed to a meeting to discuss extending this principle to convicted domestic abusers. This is encouraging, and I hope that he and colleagues from all parties will support me in making this small but vital change in the law so that this clear injustice is ended for good.
Florence Eshalomi is the Labour MP for Vauxhall.
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