An inheritance dispute between two stepsisters hingeing on which of their parents died first has been resolved by the High Court, which ruled that the younger parent legally outlived the older.
John William Scarle, 79, and Marjorie Ann Scarle, 69, died from hypothermia at their Essex home almost three years ago. Given the law governing jointly owned assets, entitlement to the couple’s estate depended on the sequence of their deaths.
Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 creates a presumption that the oldest person died first in cases where the order of death is uncertain. As a result, Mrs Scarle’s daughter, Deborah Ann Cutler, was due to inherit the Essex bungalow and £18,000.
However Mr Scarle’s daughter, Anna Winter, argued that evidence suggested her stepmother, Mrs Scarle, died first.
According to the Scarle v Scarle judgment, Mrs Scarle, who suffered a brain haemorrhage nearly a decade ago which affected her mobility, was 'substantially further on' in the process of decomposition. However experts said differences in temperature in the rooms where the bodies were found could have affected the rate of decomposition.
His Honour Judge Philip Kramer said: ‘The only evidence which could point unequivocally to the sequence of death is the relative differences in decomposition, but does it?
‘I am left with two not improbable explanations for this effect. The first is that Mrs Scarle pre-deceased her husband, the second that the micro-environment of the toilet area was warmer than the lounge. I cannot discount the latter in the absence of evidence from which I could reliably reach such a conclusion. Accordingly, I cannot fairly draw the inference that it was the former.'
Kramer also referred to case law from a nineteenth-century shipwreck and bombing during the Blitz.
James Weale, a barrister at Serle Court who represented Cutler, said: ‘Having considered old case law relating to ship-wrecks and WWII air raids, His Honour Judge Kramer accepted submissions from the defendant’s barrister that the difference in decomposition could be explained by the difference in micro-climate between the toilet (where Ann was found) and the living room (where John died).'
Andrew Wilkinson, partner and will disputes specialist at top 50 firm Shakespeare Martineau, said: ‘The inheritance battle hammers home the need for people to consider firstly whether property is owned as joint tenants or tenants in common. A properly drafted will that covers every eventuality is also vital to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled.’