Widow can inherit £1.8million estate despite helping husband die

Retired businessman’s widow can inherit his £1.8million estate despite helping him go to Dignitas because he could not travel alone, judge rules

  • Alex Ninian, a retired businessman, died aged 84 in Zurich in November 2017
  • He had been had been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy in 2013 
  • His wife, Sarah, in her 60s, had accompanied him to the assisted suicide clinic 
  • Court heard how she had tried to dissuade her husband from taking his own life 

A widow who helped her husband travel to Dignitas’s assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland has been told she can inherit his assets. 

Alex Ninian, a retired businessman, died aged 84 in Zurich in November 2017 after being diagnosed with a progressive incurable disease.

The High Court heard how Mr Ninian’s wife Sarah, in her 60s, accompanied him to Zurich because he could not travel unaided.

A judge concluded that Mrs Ninian, the sole beneficiary in the will, should not be prevented from inheriting as a result.

Alex Ninian, a retired businessman, died aged 84 in Zurich (the Dignitas clinic is pictured) in November 2017 after being diagnosed with a progressive incurable disease

He was told that she had tried to dissuade her husband from taking his own life, had contacted police and helped with their inquiries, and had not been prosecuted.  

Mrs Ninian told the judge: ‘A few months before his death, I asked him if he got any enjoyment out of life at all and he gave me the thumbs down.

‘I spent a year trying to get Alex to change his mind but he was solid in his decision that he wanted to be dignified to the end, which is why he chose to end his life.

‘He faced a future that he did not want.’

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The judge outlined his decision on Mrs Ninian’s inheritance in a ruling published today.

He analysed evidence at a hearing in London earlier this month and considered legislation relating to inheritance and situations where people encourage or assist a suicide.

What is progressive supranuclear palsy?

Progressive supranuclear palsy is a rare progressive condition that can cause problems with balance, movement, vision, speech and swallowing.

It occurs when brain cells in certain parts of the brain are damaged as a result of a build-up of a protein called tau. 

Symptoms include: 

  • problems with balance and mobility, including frequent falls
  • changes in behaviour, such as irritability or apathy (lack of interest)
  • muscle stiffness  
  • difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • slowness of thought and some memory problems

There’s currently no cure for the condition. Treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms while trying to make sure someone with PSP has the best possible quality of life. 

Mr Ninian had instructed lawyers to prepare a statement in which he said his wife had been opposed to his decision, had not pressured him to take his life and had accompanied him to Zurich only because he could not travel alone.

The judge heard that Mr Ninian had been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy in 2013. He had difficulty swallowing, could not move his eyes, had poor mobility and rarely spoke.

The couple, who lived in London, met in the late 1970s, married in 1983, when she was 28 and he was 49, and had no children.

Mrs Ninian continued ‘Alex was my soulmate for 40 years and it is very hard to cope with losing him. Everything that I did for him I did because he asked me to, and because I loved and cared for him too much to refuse.’

The judge was told that Mr Ninian’s estate had a net value of around £1.8 million. 

It comes as one woman revealed to ITV’s This Morning how police grilled her during the final weeks of her husband’s life over his decision to travel to Dignitas. 

Retired accountant Geoff Whaley, from Buckinghamshire, chose to die in Switzerland rather than face the ‘immense suffering’ of the final stages of his condition at home. 

Mr Whaley wanted assisted suicide to be made legal in the UK after his wife Ann was interviewed under caution in the weeks before his death and warned she faced 14 years in prison. 

Geoff Whaley, 80, in his wheelchair during his last few weeks. He called for a change in UK law which he said, ‘robbed me of control over my death’

Today the wife and daughter of Geoff Whaley, a retired accountant from Buckinghamshire who ended his life at Dignitas, went on This Morning to talk about their ordeal. Ann, 76, is pictured left and Alix right 

Just moments before he passed away Mr Whaley posted a haunting letter to the Government, calling for a change in UK law which he said, ‘robbed me of control over my death.’ 

He revealed how he ‘sobbed’ for the first time in five decades when his wife was grilled by police for helping him die, adding: ‘[The law] sought to punish those attempting to help me get there. The hypocrisy and cruelty of this is astounding.’ 

Today his daughter Alix Hawley told presenters Eamonn and Ruth: ‘The last few weeks of his life were like a bomb going off.

‘We could have had more time, three, four five, weeks maybe.’

The family claim if the law on assisted dying in the UK was different their beloved relative’s final weeks would not have been tied up in legal procedures.

What are the rules on going to Dignitas for assisted suicide?

The Dignitas premises where assisted suicides take place in Zurich, Switzerland

Patients travelling to Dignitas need to be sufficiently healthy to travel from the UK to Switzerland, something that can quickly be robbed from patients with degenerative illnesses.

In May 2018, Dignitas confirmed the 394th person from the UK had died in its clinic. 

Dignitas says that in recent years there has been a consistent rise in the number of people from the UK becoming members. Between 2012 and 2016, membership in the UK rose 39% from 821 to 1139. In 2016, 47 people from the UK died at Dignitas, the equivalent of one person every eight days.

Campaign group Dignity In Dying estimates that every eight days a Briton makes the journey to Dignitas.

The average cost of obtaining an assisted death overseas is £10,000.  

The organisation, which was founded in 1998, is a not-for-profit society which strives of an ‘objective of ensuring a life and a death with dignity for its members’.

Among others, its activities consist of the following:

  • Counselling in regard to all end-of-life issues
  • Cooperation with physicians, clinics and other associations
  • Carrying out patient’s instructions and patient’s rights with regard to doctors and clinics
  • Suicide- and suicide-attempt prevention
  • Support in conflicts with the authorities, with the management of nursing homes and with doctors not chosen by the patient
  • Further legal developments in regard to questions about ‘the last issues’
  • Accompaniment of dying patients and assistance with a self-determined end of life.   

Any adult can become a member of the society, even if they are not a resident in Switzerland. 

The organisation claims that in order to join, one needs to fill a declaration of membership and send it in.

Dignitas will then confirm the acceptance of membership in writing and provide the Dignitas patient’s instructions form.

The rules on going there for assisted suicide 

The organisation does require some information before allowing people to carry out an assisted suicide.

It claims that it only deals with illnesses which will lead inevitably to death, unendurable pain or an unendurable disability.

In this case it can, on reasoned request and with medical proof, arrange for members to have an assisted suicide. 

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