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Court upholds the principle that the ‘older died first’ in an inheritance dispute

We deal with all sorts of challenges to Wills – whether lack of capacity, or undue pressure or other matters.

The Court has recently considered an interesting case which dealt with the issue of who died first.

Mr and Mrs Scarle were 79 and 69 years old respectively, and lived alone in their bungalow.  On October 11th 2016 they were both discovered dead at their home.  The cause of death for both Mr and Mrs Scarle was hypothermia.

Neither Mr Scarle, nor his wife, had made Wills, and so the Intestacy Rules determined who should inherit their estates.  They did not share children, but each had one child from previous relationships.  If Mr Scarle died first, then Mrs Scarle’s child would inherit under intestacy, but if Mrs Scarle died first, then Mr Scarle’s child would inherit.

In the early 20th Century, property law in England and Wales was reformed.  Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 set down the rule that where it cannot be determined who died first then the older is presumed to have died before the younger.

In this case it was put forward by Mr Scarle’s child that Mrs Scarle must have died first.  Evidence was provided concerning the state of decomposition of the two bodies, and the argument advanced that as Mrs Scarle’s body was in a more advanced state of decomposition that she died first.

The judge in the matter, HHJ Kramer, considered the matter in detail – even referring to cases from the Blitz.  His judgement was that it could not be shown, on balance of probabilities, that Mrs Scarle died first.  He referred to such matters as the ‘micro-climate’ within the bungalow – they had been found in different areas, albeit close by.  He referred to weather reports and statements made by neighbours.

The judge confirmed the rule in section 184 of the Law of Property Act – that Mr Scarle died first because he was older than his wife.

As a result of the decision of the Court, the entire estate belonging to Mr and Mrs Scarle – which comprised their house and joint account – passed to Mrs Scarle’s child leaving Mr Scarle’s child with no inheritance, and potentially a large legal bill!

This case serves to highlight that no matter how simple your affairs might be, how little you may think you have to leave, making a Will is absolutely vital to ensure that your wishes are followed after your death.

If only Mr and Mrs Scarle had made Wills – their estate could have been divided between their two children without a protracted and expensive dispute.

Here at Rubin Lewis O’Brien we have a specialist Wills, Trusts and Probate department that can handle all aspects of estate planning, as well as a highly skilled litigation department for when action needs to be taken.

Call us today to discuss your circumstances and to see how we can help you.

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