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Judge settles inheritance dispute using 100 year old law

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.

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 resulted in her father inheriting all of the couple’s assets before his death, which would now pass to her following his death.

However her step-sister Ms Cutler relied on a 100-year-old law for her argument which led to a ‘presumption’ that as the elder of the two, Mr Scarle died first, meaning she would inherit the assets through her mother.

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.

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.

If the couple had made Wills creating trusts to cater for their respective families, then much trouble, upset and expense would have been saved.  A professionally drawn Will is highly recommended.

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David Webb

David Webb

Director - Head of Wills, Probate & Older Client Services
I specialise in probate and the administration of estates, trust and tax planning, preparation of Wills, Lasting Powers of Attorney and Court of Protection applications.

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