A judge has settled a case involving a dispute between two stepsisters over who should inherit the estate of their parents, who were found dead at the same time in their £280,000 property having not made Wills.
The dispute between Anna Winter and Deborah Cutler over their parents’ joint assets arose because it is not known whether John Scarle or his wife Ann died first at their home in Leigh-On-Sea.
Ms Winter argued that the forensic evidence at the scene suggested that Mrs Scarle died first which would have resulted in her father inheriting all of the couple’s assets before his death. These would then have passed to her under the laws of intestacy following his death.
However her stepsister Ms Cutler relied on a 100-year-old law that in a situation when the order of deaths cannot be determined, there is a presumption that the elder died first. In this case, as Mr Scarle was the elder of the two under the presumption he would have been deemed to have died first which would have meant the assets passing to her mother. She would then have inherited the assets under her mother’s death.
The legal presumption under the Law of Property Act 1925 is that the older person, Mr Scarle, would have died first unless it could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs Scarle predeceased her husband.
The judge, Philip Kramer QC, ruled that it could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs Scarle predeceased her husband and therefore the presumption that Mr Scarle as the elder died first could not be rebutted and the estate passed to Ms Winter.
He 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.”
It is thought that this is the first time since the 1950s that such a dispute has arisen in the UK, having been common during the Second World War, when entire families were killed at the same time during the Blitz.