Inheritance dispute relies on Court to decide order elderly couple passed away

By Lenore Rice

The estate of an elderly couple who were both discovered having passed away in their homes is being disputed by their stepdaughters. The dispute, currently being heard in the England and Wales High Court, centres around which of the couple died first.

John and Ann Scarle were discovered by police in their home in Essex in October 2016, having died of hypothermia. Both partners had children from previous marriages, and it is these stepdaughters who are arguing over who has the legal right to inherit the Scarle’s £300,000 house which was owned jointly by John and Ann.

The issue is that the actual legal right of succession depends on which of the couple passed away first.

While the actual details of the couple’s respective Wills have not been published, it would appear that, if Mr Scarle died first, his share of the estate would have passed to his wife and then on to her two children, Deborah and Andre. However, if Mrs Scarle died first, then her share would have passed to her husband and then on to his daughter, Anna.

The responsibility lies with the High Court to decide whether the evidence available at the scene is sufficient to determine the actual order of the deaths. The difficulty grows, though, considering that expert evidence was unable to determine even an approximate date of each death, never mind an exact time.

The inheritance dispute for the couple’s stepdaughters is centred on this uncertainty. Mr Scarle’s daughter, Anna, argues that the autopsy shows that, on the balance of probabilities, Mrs Scarle died first. This would mean that Anna should inherit the house. Conversely, Mrs Scarle's daughter, Deborah, argues that the order of the deaths simply cannot be known for sure.

Moreover, Deborah insists that a rule in s184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 should apply in this scenario. The section in question states that, in situations such as these, the elder will be deemed to have died first, which in this instance would be Mr Scarle. This presumption would only be rebutted if the evidence that Mrs Scarle had died first were beyond reasonable doubt.

The circumstances of the case are incredibly sad, and it is unfortunate that their respective children are having to deal with this current situation. It is not a scenario that arises very often, with the last major case citing the Law of Property Act taking place in 1963.

This is also a story which emphasises the importance of receiving expert legal advice when drafting a Will, especially when you are in a second or subsequent marriage with children from other relationships. The majority of husbands and wives will have mirror Wills that essentially make the same provision for how the estate should be passed on. However, if they have very different wishes on how their estate should be passed it introduces a higher degree of complexity, and the need to consider arrangements depending on which of the spouses dies first.

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