A judge ruled this week on a highly unusual inheritance battle between two stepsisters over which of their parents had died first. The case rested on a little-used English law once used to settle inheritance disputes involving shipwrecks or bombings, but experts stress it highlights the importance of modern estate planning.
What was the case about?
John William Scarle, 79, and his wife Marjorie Ann Scarle, 69, were found dead in their bungalow in Leigh on Sea by police in October 2016, having died of hypothermia some days earlier.
Postmortem results could not determine which of the two died first, resulting in a legal spat between John Scarle’s daughter Anna Winter and her stepsister Deborah Ann Cutler over who should inherit the £18,000 in the couple’s Co-op bank account and their £280,000 Essex bungalow.
The law governing jointly owned assets dictates that the last to die is entitled to the entirety of those assets. Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 presumes the older person is presumed to have died first in cases where it is not possible to determine an order of death. Mr Scarle was the older of the two, but Ms Winter believed she could prove her father had outlived her stepmother, whose body was significantly more decomposed.
Monika Byrska, Partner at Thomson Snell & Passmore LLP, says:
“With the advancements made in medicine over the past decades, it is perhaps understandable why the Claimant in this case may have hoped that determining the order of death scientifically would not be difficult and the nearly century old “Rule of Commorientes” may therefore be forgotten. The case is a stark reminder of how high the standard of evidence needs to be in order to convince the court that departure from settled law is justified; that the case is so extraordinary that the facts take it outside of the norm.
Careful estate planning may have helped avoid this dispute. If both spouses had wills benefiting children from both families, this dispute would have never arisen as the order of death of the parents would not matter.”
Article first published in the FT here: https://www.ft.com/content/2cdff4b8-bf8c-11e9-89e2-41e555e96722?FTCamp=engage%2FCAPI%2Falert%2FChannel_signal%2F%2FB2B