An almost century-old law has been used in an interesting inheritance case, in which the court had to decide which spouse of an elderly couple died first. John and Ann Scarle, aged 79 and 69, were found dead in their home in October 2016. They both died from hypothermia. John was found in the living room, and Ann was in the bathroom. When their bodies were found, it wasn’t known who had died first.
Mr Scarle’s daughter, Anna, and Mrs Scarle’s daughter, Deborah, had a ‘strained relationship’. Following their respective parent’s death Anna and Deborah became caught up in a very costly legal battle as to which one of them should inherit their parents’ bungalow worth £280,000.
Mr and Mrs Scarle held the bungalow as joint tenants, but died intestate meaning they did not leave a will. If Mr Scarle had died first, the property would have passed by survivorship to his wife, whose daughter Deborah would then have inherited it all under the rules of intestacy. However, if Mrs Scarle had died first, the reverse would have happened and Anna would have inherited the property.
A rarely used section from the Law of Property Act 1925 sets out what is known as the ‘commorientes rule’. It states that if two people die in circumstances where it is not possible to tell who died first, it is the older person who is deemed to have died first.
However in this matter, Mrs Scarle’s body was more decomposed than that of her husband. On that basis her stepdaughter, Anna, argued that “on the balance of probabilities”, it was her stepmother who died first. The commorientes rule should not apply and Anna should inherit the property.
The experts in the matter explained that the different temperature in the bathroom, where Mrs Scarle was found, could have caused her body to decompose at a different or faster rate. Deborah therefore argued that because it could not be known for certain who died first, the commorientes rule from 1925 should apply. She should inherit the property as her mother was the youngest of the couple. It was argued that it needed to be shown “beyond all reasonable doubt” that Mrs Scarle had died first and not just on the balance of probabilities.
Judge Philip Kramer agreed, explaining that because it could not be certain who died first, the old rule applies and Mrs Scarle is deemed to have survived her husband because she was younger. Anna, the claimant, therefore lost her claim and was ordered to pay £55,000 of her stepsister’s legal costs, with Anna’s own costs amounting to around £95,000. This matter therefore has cost Anna £150,000 with her receiving none of the inheritance that she was claiming she was entitled to.
Deborah, the defendant, had previously offered to split the estate with her stepsister equally. This would have saved both parties tens of thousands in legal bills and would have meant that Anna inherited something from her father’s estate. It is therefore important to consider alternative dispute resolution to try and settle a matter without the need for court proceedings to prevent unnecessary legal costs.