A story of warring step-siblings has recently gained much attention and serves as a valuable lesson in the importance of making a Will. Trowbridge Wills specialist Jenny Greenland considers the case further.
First – The Legal Presumption
Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 states that if two or more people die in circumstances where it is not possible to determine who died first, the younger is deemed to survive the elder. In a rare case the High Court has been asked to adjudicate on this this legal presumption.
What are the facts?
John and Ann Scarle were both found dead in their home in October 2016 having suffered with hypothermia. John and Ann each had one daughter from a previous relationship. No expert has been able to say conclusively who died first and therefore a disagreement has arisen between the daughters in relation to the inheritance.
Mr and Mrs Scarle’s main asset was their house, which was owned jointly. Whoever, however briefly, lived longer would have inherited the whole house on the first death. On their subsequent death, possibly only moments later, the whole house would then pass to that individual’s daughter.
Therefore, one daughter will inherit the house, worth around £280,000. The other daughter will receive nothing.
Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 is also known as the “Commorientes Rule” meaning “simultaneous death”. The very purpose of this principle is to avoid any doubt as to what should happen to an inheritance if it is not possible to determine who died first.
So, why the doubt?
Anna Winter, Mr Scarle’s daughter, insists that the evidence shows that ‘on the balance of probabilities’ Mrs Scarle died first. If Mrs Scarle died first, Mr Scarle would have inherited on her death. On Mr Scarle’s subsequent death Ms Winter would then receive the entire estate.
Debroah Cutler, Mrs Scarle’s daughter’s believes that as there is uncertainty as to the order of the deaths, the legal presumption should be adopted. She states that Ms Winter needs to rebut this presumption ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. If Mr Scarle died first, Mrs Scarle would have inherited on his death. On Mrs Scarle’s subsequent death Ms Cutler would then receive the entire estate.
‘The balance of probabilities‘ is the civil burden of proof in England and Wales whereas ‘beyond reasonable doubt‘ is the burden of proof in the criminal law. Ms Winter’s argument therefore does hold weight. It is not clear whether this is enough to sway the judge away from the law enshrined in statute.
We await judgment.
How could this have been avoided?
If Mr and Mrs Scarle had prepared Wills they could have ensured that both their daughter’s inherited from their estate thus avoiding litigation. It is very common, these days, for people to have second marriages and children from previous relationships. Whilst this is normal in our society, our legislation has not caught up. To ensure a fair and equal distribution of your estate after your death (and in case of a simultaneous death) you must make a Will.