Two stepsisters are locked in a bitter legal dispute over which of their respective parents died first. John and Ann Scarle, who both had children from previous marriages, died from hypothermia at their home address in Leigh-on-Sea. Whilst further details in relation to the nature of the tragedy are yet to be disclosed, the respective sides of the family remain at war as to who should inherit the family home.
The matrimonial home was purchased in 1988 following the couple’s courtship and was acquired using the proceeds of sale from Mrs Scarle’s previous home. Mr Scarle had adopted the role of full-time carer to Mrs Scarle after she suffered a stroke in or around 1998.
Mr Searle’s daughter Ms Winter argues that since her father was physically fitter than Mrs Scarle, it was highly likely that he outlived her. However, Mrs Scarle’s daughter Ms Cutler argues that it is not possible to determine who died first.
Part of what makes this case fascinating is its invocation of a little used 94-year-old law; The Law of Property Act 1925, making it the first case of its kind since the 1950s. The most famous similar case related to deaths during the Second World War when a family was wiped out by the same bomb during the Battle of Britain.
Section 184 of this act states;
In all cases where, after the commencement of this Act, two or more persons have died in circumstances rendering it uncertain which of them survived the other or others, such deaths shall (subject to any order of the court), for all purposes affecting the title to property, be presumed to have occurred in order of seniority, and accordingly the younger shall be deemed to have survived the elder.
This legal presumption would mean that since Mr Searle was older, the law would determine that he died first thus necessitating the estate to be distributed to Mrs Searle’s children.
Mr Scarle was the last of the couple to be seen alive after he spoke to a neighbour saying that he was ‘getting the car ready for Ann’. A week later both were found dead in their home address.
Police evidence suggests that Mrs Scarle died first owing to the nature of her body at the time of discovery, however in order to succeed in the inheritance battle, this would have to be proved beyond reasonable doubt and such evidence whilst indicative is by no means conclusive.
The case is currently being heard by Judge Phillip Kramer and has been brought under the Law of Property Act 1925 with a ruling expected later this year.
Duncan Lewis’ Wills and Probate Director Caroline Roche comments on the complexity of this case;
“Not only do you have a situation where the order of death cannot be determined, but you also have a case of a second marriage with children from previous relationships thus making it that bit more complicated. In my view, since the order of death will not be able to be determined conclusively, the judge may well make an award where both sets of children from each marriage benefit equally. In any event, I will be closely following this case and it will be interesting to read Judge Kramer’s judgment on this.”
Caroline Roche is the director of the Wills and Probate department at Duncan Lewis and is an experienced contentious probate solicitor. Her specialist experience includes, drafting complex wills; advising on inheritance tax due from an estate; gathering the estate when a loved-one has passed; dealing with both taxable and non-taxable estates, handling the affairs when a loved-one has died without a will.
Contact Caroline directly on 020 3114 1104 or email@example.com.
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