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Splitting heirs. When who died first can split a family

Reasons to choose Wilson Browne

Judgment has been reserved in an unusual case where step-sisters are asking the High Court to determine which of their parents died first to establish who should inherit the £300,000 Estate.

In October 2016 John Scarle and his wife Ann were found dead of hyperthermia at their home in Leigh-on-Sea. At the time they died, John was aged 79 and Ann was aged 69. They had just celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary.

This was their second marriage and each had a daughter from a previous relationship. An investigation into their deaths including post-mortems has been unable to establish who passed away first though it is accepted that the deaths occurred between 3 October 2016 and 11 October 2016.

John’s daughter Anna Winter contends that her step-mother would have succumbed to hyperthermia first and that therefore her Estate would have passed, for that short time, to Mr Scarle leaving Ms Winter as the sole beneficiary. Ann Scarle was in poor health and John Scarle had been her full-time carer for many years.

Ann’s daughter Deborah Cutler claims the order of deaths cannot be determined and is asking the Court to apply the Commorientes Rule and the Law of Property Act 1925 presumption – a little-used law that was most commonly applied in war-time to determine the order of deaths after Blitz raids.

This Rule provides that where the order of deaths cannot be determined, the elder of the two will be presumed to have died first. If that Rule is applied then Deborah will inherit the entire Estate as her mother will be deemed to have survived Mr Scarle.

Judgment has been reserved to a later date and we will have to wait to see whether the Judge has been persuaded that John or Ann died first or whether the Commorientes Rule will be applied.

Our specialist Contentious Probate Team is on hand to advise you if you think that you may have grounds to challenge the validity of a Will. We have a wealth of experience in such claims and work closely with colleagues in our Legal 500 recognised Private Client Team to ensure that your interests are protected.