The High Court in London is set to decide which family members are entitled to receive a £300,000 inheritance in a rare case that also highlights the complications that can arise should a properly drafted will
not be in place after an individual has died.
The legal battle revolves around the two children of John and Ann Scarle, who both died in October 2016 just days after their 26th wedding anniversary. The couple were both found dead at the same time at the property they shared in Leigh-On-Sea, Essex. The property was owned on a joint tenancy basis, meaning that when one died, the property ownership would pass on to the other.
However, as it has proved difficult to ascertain whether it was John or Ann died first, the result has been their two daughters – one a daughter of John, one a daughter of Anne, both through previous relationships – are now disputing who is entitled to the £300,000 estate. If it could be proved the John Scarles had died first, then his partner Ann would have inherited the estate whilst she was still alive - no matter how short this period may have been. If this was the case, then it would be Ann’s daughter Deborah Cutler who would be due to inherit rather than her step-sister Anna Winter, John’s daughter.
Rare Law to Decide Inheritance
Cases of this type are rare in the UK, this one being the first of its kind for over 60 years, and judges will be guided by a law called the ‘Commorientes Rule’, which was introduced in 1926 but has roots going back to the late 18th Century. The rule was used during WW2 to decide on cases where married couples or whole families had perished at the same time, such as during the Blitz or following passenger ship losses.
Under the Commorientes Rule’, if post-mortem examinations and evidence cannot decide the question, then a judge will use the Rule, which always assumes the deaths occurred in order of seniority – i:e the eldest person involved died first and the youngest last. For example, if person A was aged 75 at death and person B was 74, then if they both died in an incident and it was impossible to say who died first, then the law would presume that person A died first. This would mean that person B would inherit from person A’s Will and person B's family will inherit the cash.
In this case, John Scarle's daughter, Anna Winter is claiming that her step-mother was most likely to have died first, meaning that her father would have briefly inherited his wife's share of the house when she died, and then passed it to his daughter when he succumbed. However, Ann’s daughter Deborah Cutler, claims the order of deaths cannot be determined and that the 'legal presumption' is that her step-father - the older of the couple - died first, meaning she and her brother, Andre Farley, should get the house.
Judgement in the case has been reserved until a later date.
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