High court must decide order of death of elderly couple found dead in their home

The estate of an elderly couple who were both found dead in their own home is being disputed by their stepdaughters in the England and Wales High Court, with the point of contention being which of the couple died first.

John and Ann Scarle died of hypothermia at their home at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex in October 2016. Their bodies were not found until a week later, after neighbours called the police.

Both had issue from previous marriages, and these stepdaughters are now claiming the right to inherit the Scarle's GBP300,000 house, which John and Ann owned jointly. The difficulty is that the succession depends on which of the two died first.

The couple's testamentary wishes have not been published, but it seems that, if Mr Scarle died first, his share of the property would have briefly passed to his wife, and then when she died, to her children Deborah and Andre.

However, if Mrs Scarle died first, her share would have briefly passed to her husband, and then on to his daughter Anna.

The High Court has to consider whether there was sufficient evidence at the scene to determine the order of deaths. Expert evidence could not reliably determine even an approximate date of each death, let alone time.

Mr Scarle's daughter Anna argues that the autopsy evidence shows on the balance of probabilities that Mrs Scarle died first, and therefore that Anna should inherit the property. Mrs Scarle's daughter Deborah argues that the order of deaths cannot be known for sure, and thus the commorientes rule in s184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 should apply, which states that the elder will be deemed to have died first: in this case, the husband. The s184 presumption would not be rebutted even if it could be shown that Mrs Scarle had probably died first, she says, unless the evidence that Mrs Scarle had died first were 'beyond reasonable doubt'.

The judge hearing the case has reserved his decision.

Paul Blackmoore of Thy Will Be Done comments;

‘’If the Wills had been written correctly in the first instance it would not have mattered who died first.

The residue should have been split exactly the same whichever party died first.

Even better, the property was placed in Trust and then the clients could have determined in advance who received their own 50% of the Trust which would have passed immediately to the beneficiaries way back in 2016 and not still be unappointed and argued over in 2019.

Property Probate Trusts work for so many potential issues and at just £1995 including v.a.t are fantastic value for money.

Call us today to find out how you can avoid estate dispute issues by setting up a Property Probate Trust’’.

0800 668 11 64