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Tragic High Court inheritance case highlights the importance of a will

Jul 8th, 2019

Adrian Lyon, Solicitor

If there was ever a case that reminds us of the importance of drawing up a will, it is the recent case of John and Ann Scarle.

The case held at the High Court provides a perfect example of how poor estate planning and the application of the Commorientes Rule can result in an outcome that was never intended by the individuals concerned.

In circumstances where people die together, and it cannot be determined who died first, there is a legal principle called the Commorientes Rule - meaning simultaneous deaths. This rule decides who should be treated as having died first to determine title to the property. In such circumstances the deaths are presumed to have occurred in order of seniority; therefore, the older individual is deemed to have died before the younger.

Mr and Mrs Scarle were sadly found dead of hypothermia, at their property in Leigh-on-Sea. They left estates with a combined value of approximately £300,000. Each had children from previous relationships; the step-daughters of Mr and Mrs Scarle, are currently seeking the judgement to decide who died first.

Although with modern forensic techniques, it may seem unlikely that circumstances could arise in which it is not possible to determine who died first; the recent Scarle case is a perfect example of the complicated consequences that can arise when individuals die without wills or have wills that are not appropriately drafted meaning the Commorientes Rule could apply.

John Scarle's daughter, Anna Winter, argued that the likelihood is that her stepmother died first. If this could be determined, it would mean that her father inherited her stepmother's estate that this would have passed to Mrs Winter at the point when her father died. Ann Scarle's daughter, Deborah Cutler, instead argues that the order of the death cannot be determined and that the Commorientes Rule should apply. As John Scarle was 79 years old when he died, and his wife was 69 years old, the application of the rule would mean that Mr Scarle would be deemed to have died first. In such a case, his estate would have passed to his wife in the first instance and then, on her death, to her daughter Mrs Cutler.

The judge concluded that the order of death remained uncertain, and it could not be ruled which of their parents died first as the bodies of the Scarles were found in separate parts of the bungalow, with different temperatures and “micro-climates” therefore differing rates of body decomposition occurred.

The Commorientes Rule will therefore apply, and Majorie Scarle is presumed to have survived John Scarle as Marjorie is younger, meaning the estates will go to Marjorie’s daughter.

The importance of seeking professional advice in respect of your estate planning needs and having an appropriately drafted will cannot be overemphasised.

When discussing the preparation of new wills with clients, we are often asked to provide advice about what would happen in a scenario where a couple (and potentially their children) were all to die at the same time. The reason for this question is often that a family may travel or take holidays together and they want to be sure of where their estates will pass should a catastrophic event, such as a car or plane crash, occur. Often the clients will be keen to ensure that their estates pass to particular beneficiaries rather than by the rules of intestacy (specific rules contained in legislation that provide who should inherit in circumstances where an individual did not leave a will or the will they left does not fully dispose of their estates).

Not having an appropriately drafted will can be catastrophic; if you have any concerns regarding your will and would like to discuss this please contact us.

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