Court rules on expensive dispute between step-sisters from Essex

News Article

A much-publicised inheritance dispute has ended after a judge ruled in favour of a daughter who successfully argued that her mother had, in all probability, outlived her stepfather.

The facts

John Scarle, 79, and his wife Ann Scarle, 69 – who each had children from previous marriages – were found dead at their home. Both had died from hypothermia. Pathology reports were unable to determine with certainty even the approximate date, let alone the time of the death of either John or Ann. The reason for this was that the rates of decomposition could not be determined by the different “micro-climates” in the toilet, where Mrs Scarle’s body was found, and the lounge, where Mr Scarle was discovered.

The law

As it could not be determined who had died first, the legal presumption under the Commorientes Rule is that the older person, John, would have died first unless it could be proven beyond reasonable doubt that Ann predeceased her husband.

The sister’s claims

Mrs Scarle’s daughter, Deborah Cutler stood to inherit the entire estate worth around £300,000.

However, if Ann Scarle was found to have died first, her estate would have passed to John Scarle and, therefore, his daughter, Anna Winter, would inherit the home.

The Judgment

Following the hearing earlier this year, Judge Philip Kramer delivered his ruling, in favour of Ann Scarle’s daughter, Deborah Cutler.

Handing down his judgment at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, 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 claimant has not satisfied me to the civil standard as to the order of death.

“I conclude that there is uncertainty as to the order of death. Section 184 applies and the younger is deemed to have survived the elder.”

Ms Cutler therefore received the entire £300,000 estate.

The Consequences

Ms Winter was ordered to pay Ms Cutler’s costs of £55,000 within 28 days and a further £30,000 to be subject to further discussion. Not to mention having to settle her own legal fees amounting to £95,000.

This means that the dispute has cost Ms Winter at least £150,000.

Dominic Green, a Solicitor with Palmers who specialises in estate disputes, said:

“The striking lesson to be learned from this local and high-profile case is the importance of all parties considering alternative dispute resolution.

Throughout this case, Ms Cutler, who would appear to have been in the stronger position having been the daughter of the younger parent, made an offer to divide the estate 50/50 with Ms Winter and even at one point offered Ms Winter a 60/40 split in her favour to avoid the court’s doors.

The only offer made by Ms Winter throughout the proceedings was that she receives 100% of the estate and Ms Cutler was to pay some of her costs to date. This of course would have left Ms Cutler with little alternative other than to litigate.

The ultimate consequence for Ms Winter is that she has immediately lost £150,000 in her and her step-sister’s legal fees, a potential further £30,000 in legal fees, and not to mention the £180,000 she would have received if she had accepted her step-sister’s offer of a 60/40 split. That is a loss of £330,000-£360,000, for an argument over an estate worth £300,000.”

Making a will is not particularly time-consuming but it can be more complicated than some people may imagine. That’s why it is important to seek professional legal advice rather than leaving it to chance or making a ‘home-made’ will.”

For help and advice on drafting or updating a will, or how to resolve disputes in the most cost-effective and sensible way, please contact us.