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High Court clarifies inheritance disputes

14 August 2019

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A High Court has today handed down a judgement in the case of Scarle v Scarle, which provides clarity on inheritance precedent.

The case concerned two step-daughters, Anna Winter and Deborah Butler, who both potentially stood to inherit after the deaths of their parents John and Ann Scarle. Mr Scarle was the claimant’s father, while Mrs Scarle was the defendant’s mother.

The couple were found dead from hypothermia in their Essex home in 2016. The court was required to determine which of the two parents died first, in order to decide which daughter would receive the inheritance.

Whichever of the two died last would automatically have become the owner of the joint assets (including the family home), however experts were unable to prove the order of their deaths conclusively.

The defendant’s barrister James Weale explained that various pathologists observed that Mrs Scarle’s body was significantly more decomposed than Mr Scarle’s. However, it was also noted in court that rates of decomposition are highly sensitive to environmental conditions.

Having considered old case law relating to ship-wrecks and WWII air raids, Judge Philip Kramer concluded that: “The claimant has not satisfied me to the civil standard as to the order of death, it remains uncertain”.

As such, the order of death was decided on the basis of a legal presumption in s. 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925, which is that the oldest died first, in this case Mr Scarle, who was 79 – ten years his wife’s senior.

Law Hurst & Taylor partner Rachel Liebeschuetz said: “The judgment provides welcome clarification to this area of law, which has been uncertain for many years.”  

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Private client Wills, Trusts & Probate