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Which parent died first? High Court asked to decide in inheritance dispute

The stepdaughters of an elderly couple found dead in their home are locked in a bitter High Court battle over who is to inherit their estate.

The question of which parent died first is critical to the outcome.

John Scarle, 79, and his wife Ann, 69, died from hypothermia in October 2016. They were not found until around a week later after concerned neighbours called the police.

Establishing the order in which the couple died is crucial to determining which side of the family inherits their jointly owned £280,000 property in Essex.

With experts unable to determine the exact date of their death within that week, let alone the exact time, it has been left to Judge Philip Kramer to intervene.

Loggerheads

The couple, who had not made Wills, had no children together but both had children from previous relationships. In the circumstances, the natural progression of inheritance would be as follows:

  • If Mr Scarle died first, his share of the property would have passed briefly to his wife and then when she died to her children, Deborah Cutler and Andre Farley;
  • But if Mrs Scarle died first, her share would have briefly passed to her husband and then on to his daughter Anna Winter.

The problem is that Mrs Cutler and Mrs Winter cannot agree on who died first - leaving the two sides of the family at loggerheads.

The law

At the heart of the battle is a rarely used law dating back almost 100 years. The Law of Property Act 1925 was most famously used in 1940 to decide who inherited after a family of four was wiped out by the same bomb in the Battle of Britain.

Known as the 'commorientes rule' meaning 'simultaneous deaths', Section 184 of the Act states that if two or more people die in circumstances where it's not possible to decide who died first, it will be deemed that the younger person survived the older person.

Mrs Scarle's daughter Deborah argues that the order of deaths cannot be known for sure. She says that because her mother was younger than her step-father, the legal presumption is that she and her brother should inherit the house.

On the other hand, Mr Scarles' daughter Anna says she should have the property. One reason for this is because evidence about the state of Mrs Scarles' body when found by police suggests she had been dead longer than Mr Scarle.

Important points

Although Judge Philip Kramer has reserved his ruling until a later date, it is clear from this case how vital it is to think ahead about who will inherit your estate when you die. This is particularly important if you and your spouse have children from previous relationships.

Dying without a Will, means the rules of intestacy apply which may mean your estate does not go to who you want it to. It also means that the chance of a costly and emotional dispute further down the line is much higher.

The best way to make sure your wishes are carried out after you die is to have a valid Will in place and to review it regularly. This is especially important after any significant life events such as getting married or divorced or having children.

For help and advice about contesting a Will, please contact Wards Solicitors' Probate Disputes team. Head of the team, Elizabeth Fry, is recommended in the Legal 500 guide for 2019 as a leading individual for contentious trust probate work and described as 'diligent and persistent, skilled and effective'.

For guidance on making or updating a Will, please contact our Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity team, also singled out for praise in the latest Legal 500 guide and now one of the largest departments in the South West.