High Court rules that elder parent died first in inheritance dispute

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In June, we highlighted the case of a contested estate arising from the tragic deaths of a couple, John and Ann Scarle, following an apparent burglary at their home. The Judge has now decided who, for legal purposes, died first.

The couple each had a child by a previous marriage – Anna, daughter of John, and Deborah, daughter of Ann. In the absence of a Will, the two step-sisters asked the High Court to rule on which of their parents died first in order to establish which of them should receive a £300,000 inheritance.

This required reference to the Law of Property Act 1925, last used to resolve a similar dispute 61 years ago. Presented with inconclusive evidence and basing his decision on the balance of probabilities, the presiding judge in the 1958 case ruled that the elder spouse died first.

The decision of the High Court in the Scarle case follows that precedent, ruling that John, who was ten years senior, is presumed to have died first. Therefore, the estate will have passed briefly to his wife Ann and then, following her subsequent death, to her daughter Deborah who under the intestacy rules will inherit the couple’s former home and £18000. Her step-sister receives nothing.

Interestingly, Judge Kramer followed the precedent despite post-mortem evidence which showed that the body of Ann Scarle was discovered in a more decomposed state than that of her husband, which would seemingly indicate that she died first.

However, in summing up, Judge Kramer explained that the difference in levels of decomposition could also be explained by the fact that the bodies were found in different areas of the property, each with their own micro-climate and he could not discount that evidence and fairly draw the inference from the expert evidence that Ann had died first.

The tragedy of the case is compounded by the lack of a Will which, properly drafted, would have dealt with how Mr and Mrs Scarle wanted their estate to be distributed in unfortunate circumstances such as this. In drafting Wills, it is also likely that the manner in which the property was owned (joint tenants or tenants in common) would have been considered. It also highlights the importance of making a Will to minimise the possibility of disputes arising among potential beneficiaries. A willingness to compromise might also have helped the step-sisters to a better overall outcome where, again, the legal costs are likely to have eaten into the estate available for distribution.

If you would like to make a Will, our Private Client team can help. Equally, if you are considering making or defending a challenge against a Will, our Contentious Probate team are ready to advise you on the strength of your case.