The stepdaughters of a couple who were found dead at their home are embroiled in a legal dispute over who is entitled to approximately £300,000 in inheritance.
John Scarle, 79, and his wife Ann Scarle, 69, each had children from previous marriages.
The dispute between Anna Winter and Deborah Cutler has arisen because it is not known whether John Scarle or Ann Scarle died first.
If John Scarle is deemed to have died first, his estate would have passed to Ann Scarle and, therefore, her daughter, Deborah Cutler, would inherit the home.
However, if Ann Scarle is found to have died first, her estate would have passed to John Scarle and, therefore, his daughter, Anna Winter, would inherit the home.
The legal presumption under the Law of Property Act 1925 is that the older person, John Scarle, would have died first unless it can be proven beyond reasonable doubt that Ann Scarle predeceased her husband.
John Scarle’s daughter is attempting to prove that despite being older, her father would have outlived his wife who was frail and suffered from a number of health problems. It was found during the case that ‘none of the experts were able to express any view as to even the approximate date, let alone the time, of the death of either John or Ann’. A decision in the case is expected later in the year.
Dominic Green, a Solicitor with Palmers who specialises in wills and disputes, said: “The piece of legislation being challenged is known as the ‘Commorientes Rule,’ which is supposed to make clear the order of inheritance when two people die in the same circumstance but their order of death is unclear.
“It was often used during the Second World War where couples or entire families were wiped out during the Blitz.
Although the circumstances in which John and Ann Scarle died are unusual, it is not uncommon for couples or indeed families to die together or shortly after each other, for example in road traffic accidents.
To avoid any potential disputes over inheritance, a survivorship clause can be included in a will. In effect, this states that a beneficiary must survive the death of the first ‘testator’ (the person who made the will) for a given period of time – often set at 30 days – for the inheritance to take effect.
If the beneficiary also dies within the survivorship period, the assets pass directly to the surviving beneficiaries named in the will of the first testator.
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 legal advice rather than attempting to draft a DIY will.”
For help and advice on drafting or updating a will, please contact us.