A woman has won a £300,000 inheritance battle against her stepsister in the High Court, hinging on whose parent died first, by using a 1925 law to argue that her mother legally outlived her stepfather. John and Ann Scarle, aged 79 and 69, died from hypothermia at their property in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in October 2016.
Their children, who had a "strained relationship", then became embroiled in a legal row over who would inherit the £280,000 bungalow. The case, described as an "extraordinary all or nothing" dispute, concluded on Tuesday with one of the stepsisters walking away with the property and the other having to pay at least £150,000 in legal costs. Anna Winter, Mr Scarle's daughter, argued that her stepmother, Mrs Scarle, was likely to have died first and that meant that her father technically inherited the house, which should, therefore, be passed on to her. But her stepsister, Deborah Cutler, Mrs Scarle's daughter, argued that it could not be said for certain who passed away first and so legally her mother, the younger party, should inherit the property. Mrs Cutler relied on a nearly century-old law to win the case.
The "Commorientes Rule" in Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 - meaning "simultaneous deaths" - states that if it cannot be determined who has died first then the younger person should be presumed to have outlived the elder. Mrs Winter's barrister, Amrik Wahiwala, said that the decomposition of Mrs Scarle's body suggested that "on the balance of probabilities" she had been dead longer than her husband. But, Mrs Cutler's barrister, James Weale, argued that there was no direct evidence shedding light on when either had died.
He said Mrs Winter would have to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Mrs Scarle died first, not on the "balance of probabilities". Judge Philip Kramer ruled in favour of Mrs Cutler and handed down his judgment at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Tuesday. 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. "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." Mr Weale said following the decision: "The High Court gave judgment today in an extraordinary case which required a judge to determine the order in which the parents of two step-sisters died.”
"This was an all or nothing case for the parties who stood to inherit from their parents."
Andrew Wilkinson, partner and will disputes specialist, added: “It comes as no surprise that this almost century-old law has not been used since the Blitz.”
"Given the advances in medical science and forensics, it is almost always possible to ascertain the order of death."
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Mr and Mrs Scarle began their relationship in 1983 and bought the property in 1988 using the proceeds of the sale of Mrs Scarle's former house. Mr Scarle cared full time for his wife in the final years of her life. She suffered a stroke and brain haemorrhage between 1998 and 1999 and had trouble walking, relying on a walking frame and wheelchair to get around.
He was last seen on October 3 or 4, 2016 when he told a neighbour he was "getting the car ready for Ann" so they could drive to have lunch together. A card from Mrs Cutler wishing the couple well on their 26th wedding anniversary, which arrived at the house on October 7, was found opened - indicating at least one of them was alive then. The couple were found dead on the evening of October 11 and their home had been "turned upside down" by vandals and burglars, the court heard. Two windows had been smashed and a rock was found lying on the floor, and the conservatory door was unlocked. Cushions were scattered around the living room and drawers had been ransacked in the bedroom. Mrs Scarle was found lying on the floor in the bathroom wearing just a top, and Mr Scarle was found face down in the lounge wearing pyjamas.
Home Office pathologist Dr Ashley Fegan-Earl, who has worked on Silent Witness, the BBC drama about forensic pathology, was one of the experts who gave evidence during the case.
The court heard that it was not possible to definitively say who died first because levels of decomposition could be affected by the different room temperatures in the bathroom and lounge.
The judge concluded that the couple died from hypothermia at some stage between October 4 and 9. Hypothermia is when body temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius; normal body temperature is around 37 degrees Celsius. Post-mortem examinations on the couple revealed that Mr Scarle had suffered "a period of neglect or poor nutrition prior to death" while Mrs Scarle suffered from a number of conditions which could have caused her to collapse. Mrs Winter argued that her father had attended school reunions in 2015 and 2016, suggesting he had not been neglecting himself in the years before his death.
Mrs Cutler's legal team said Mrs Winter had "refused to make any reasonable attempt to engage in settlement negotiations at any stage" and that his client was "met with stubborn intransigence" at every turn. They said Mrs Cutler, on the other hand, "could not have done any more to resolve the dispute" and that the case had been "crying out" for an out of court settlement. After losing the legal battle over the property, Mrs Winter was ordered to pay the majority of Mrs Cutler's legal costs. She must pay £55,000 of the £84,000 total within 28 days and the remainder will be subject to further discussion. Her own legal costs amount to around £95,000, meaning the High Court dispute will cost her at least £150,000. The judge criticised the "vitriolic and hurtful" response of the public to the case following its publication. He said that people should be more "humane", adding: "There's no suggestion that Mrs Winter or Mrs Cutler were inattentive to their parents, and what happened was wholly unexpected." Mrs Cutler said following the judgement:
“This matter should never have got to trial.”
"I did my best to resolve the dispute by making several reasonable offers to the Claimant including an offer right at the beginning that the parties split the assets belonging to the estate 50/50.
"However, none of those offers were accepted and the Claimant refused my offers to mediate.
"The only counter-offer made by the Claimant was that her father’s my stepfather’s estate would receive the entirety of the assets and that I would have to pay a portion of her legal costs.
"I am very pleased that the Judge has accepted my case that the evidence was too uncertain to enable a conclusion to be drawn with the consequence that the statutory presumption applies.
"Myself and my family would like to ask for privacy in this sad and difficult case to be respected."
Previous cases in which Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 has featured:
- In 1940, a high-explosive bomb landed on a house in Chelsea, killing all four people in a shelter in the basement who were buried by the rubble. Two of the deceased had made bequests in their wills which would take effect only if the beneficiaries, also amongst the deceased, were to survive them. It was held by a majority of the House of Lords that in the absence of evidence that any of the deceased had survived the others that under section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 the younger was deemed to have survived the elder, so the property went to the estate of the youngest.
- In 1958, a case reached court involving the deaths of a husband and wife in a car which had crashed and landed upside down in a ditch full of water. Mr and Mrs Beares had been travelling near London when the accident occurred. The post mortem showed that Mr Beares had been hit on the head and knocked completely unconscious while his wife was not. They were both found dead at the scene, having drowned. It was argued that having been conscious, Mrs Beares would have used up the oxygen in her body faster than Mr Beares. Under Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925, as Mr Beares was older by seven months it was presumed he died first and the will went to Mrs Beares as the sole executrix. Their four children did not inherit anything.
- In 1963, a case saw the families of a couple who drowned at sea fighting over their inheritance. Both had left their estates to the other and their bodies were never found. There was no further evidence of the precise time or cause of the death of the couple. He was older than she and therefore presumed to have survived him; his property fell into his wife’s estate and passed under her will to her niece.