The South African legal system is heavily influenced by Roman-Dutch law, which was brought to our land by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, and is now one of our primary sources of law known as common law. One of the significant common law principles relating to inheritance from deceased estates in South Africa is the bloody hand rule.
The Bloody Hand Rule
The common law principle ‘de bloedige hand neemt geen erf’ is directly translated as ‘the bloody hand does not inherit’. In terms of this principle, persons who unlawfully and intentionally cause the death of a person will be considered unworthy to inherit from that person or receive any benefit from that person’s estate. As the principle only relates to the unlawful and intentional causing of death, a person who lawfully caused the death of another person, for example in self-defence, will not be considered unworthy to inherit.
In the case of Danielz NO v De Wet & Another, the court confirmed that it is not necessary for a person to intentionally cause the deceased’s death to be unworthy to inherit. In this case, a wife had hired a third party to ‘teach her spouse a lesson’ and assault him severely without the intention that he be killed. The third-party arranged for two hitmen to attend to the arrangement, after which the deceased was shot 18 times and killed. The court stated, ‘In no civilized society should a person who deliberately and in a premeditated manner planned and participated in a vicious assault, which ultimately caused the death of the deceased, benefit from the consequences of his/her actions – even if those consequences were unforeseen’.
Evolution of the rule
Over the years, our courts have developed this common-law principle to evolve with the morals of modern society and our constitutional values. The principle has therefore been extended from the original common-law grounds of unworthiness, such as murder, to the general concept that an offender shall not be entitled to derive any benefit from his or her own wrongful conduct. Examples of other actions by beneficiaries that have led to our courts declaring them unworthy to inherit include hiding or destroying a will, forging a will, enrichment through a crime and other contemptible conduct towards the deceased.
In the case of Pillay v Nagan, a beneficiary forged his mother’s will, and his siblings approached a court to have him declared unworthy to inherit. Although forging a will is not included in the common law grounds of unworthiness, the court found that the fraudulent action was reason enough to declare a beneficiary unworthy to inherit. In the case of Taylor v Pim, a woman hired a man to assist with her business and they later began dating. After this, she developed a drinking problem, which he encouraged, and she named him as the sole heir in her will. When she fell ill while they were on holiday, he refused to permit the hotel to call a doctor for her. She consequently died after the doctor’s late arrival. The court found that he was unworthy to inherit from her estate because, by encouraging her alcoholism, he had led her to live an immoral life.
From the cases discussed above, we can see that the bloody hand rule remains open to interpretation by our courts, which has resulted in further grounds of unworthiness to inherit being added over time. It remains a key consideration that fiduciary practitioners involved in deceased estate administration in South Africa today should be aware of.
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