Daughter Beats Stepsister in £300k Inheritance Dispute
John & Ann Scarle, who died at home from hypothermia in October 2016, have been at the centre of a bitter inheritance dispute which settled recently, in August 2019.
The argument ended up in the High Court after their two step-daughters, quibbled over which parent died first.
The case revolved around a little used 100-year law, not used since the 1950s when it was more commonly applied to settle disputes in Blitz deaths.
Anna Winter (Mr Scarle’s daughter) and Deborah Cutler (Mrs Scarle’s daughter), who had a strained relationship, went to court over who was entitled to inherit their parent’s joint assets. Their main asset is their bungalow, valued at £280,000.
Mr & Mrs Scarle held the property as joint tenants. Essentially, this means that one person’s share of the property passes to the survivor when they die. As the couple died without a will (intestate), their estate automatically passes to their children.
The key issue in this case, focussed on who died first. The forensic evidence was not clear. In turn, this made it very difficult to establish whose child should inherit the property.
It seems Ms Cutler had offered to settle the case by dividing the assets, including the couple’s home, equally between herself and Mrs Winter. She had also suggested a 60/40 split in Mrs Winter’s favour, including an offer of mediation to resolve the matter.
However, Mrs Winter remained ‘intransigent’ and rejected these proposals, stating that she would only settle out of court if her step sister agreed to her having all the assets. Litigation ensued.
The “Commorientes Rule”
Mrs Winter argued that as her father’s body was less decomposed than her stepmother’s, this suggested that he had died later. Ms Cutler’s case rested on the “Commorientes Rule” under s184 of the Law of Property Act 1925.
The “Commorientes Rule” states that where property is owned as joint tenants and it cannot be ascertained which of the joint owners died first, the Court will presume death based on seniority. This means that the property will pass to the youngest owner.
In this case, the forensic evidence suggested Mrs Winter’s step-mother died first. This would then result in her father inheriting everything before his death. As he had then died, they would in turn pass to her.
However, Ms Cutler’s argument relied on the “presumption” that, as the elder of the two, her father, Mr Scarle, died first. She would then inherit the estate from her mother.
According to the judgment, Mrs Scarle, who suffered a brain haemorrhage nearly a decade ago which affected her mobility, was ‘substantially further on’ in the process of decomposition.
Ruling in favour of Ms Cutler, who now stands to receive all £300,000 estate, his Honour Judge Philip Kramer was not convinced: ‘The only evidence which could point unequivocally to the sequence of death is the relative differences in decomposition, but does it?
Delivering his ruling the Judge said that the explanations surrounding who had died first were improbable, therefore in these circumstances, s184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 would apply.
Mrs Winter was ordered to pay legal fees amounting to £150,000 (£84,000 for Ms Cutler and upwards £95,000 in fees herself).
This is an unusual case. That said, it does cast light on why it’s important to understand the pros and cons of how you own a property. Moreover, making a Will – and keeping it up to date – can better determine how assets are distributed.
Had Mr & Mrs Scarle severed their joint tenancy and held the property as tenants in common, the rule of survivorship would not have been triggered. The assets would pass to the nominated beneficiary who would then be free to dispose of it as he/she sees fit.
Had this been the case it would not have mattered which of the owners died first and the “Commorientes Rule” would not have applied.
Whilst careful estate planning will always mitigate risk, on occasion, it is difficult to avoid family disputes. Inheritance disputes can be complex. And costly.
This case also serves to emphasise that finding an alternative way to settle a dispute can often be of enormous emotional and financial benefit.
For more information or advice about estate planning please contact us. We’re here to help.
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