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Inheritance dispute over which parent died first reaches conclusion

Posted on 3 February 2020 by Charlotte Dullaway

Inheritance dispute over which parent died first reaches conclusion

The tragic case of Estate of James Scarle v Estate of Marjorie Scarle (2019) came to a conclusion in the summer of 2019 when the Court upheld the Commorientes rule and ordered that James Scarle died before his wife, Marjorie.

On 11 October 2016 John and Marjorie Scarle were found dead in their home. Post-mortem examinations concluded that they died of hypothermia but were unable to identify which of them had died first. There were several medical experts instructed in the case who failed to reach an agreement on this important point. Attention was focused on the locations in which James and Marjorie had been found within their home and the differing level of decomposition.

The claim was brought by Ann Winter, James’ daughter and the executrix of his estate, against her stepsister, Deborah Ann Cutler, who was Marjorie’s daughter and the executrix of her estate.

The case arose because James and Marjorie had jointly owned assets including their marital home and a bank account. Under the principles of survivorship, where property is jointly owned and one owner dies it passes automatically to the survivor. It was therefore necessary to establish who died first to determine whether the jointly held assets fell into James’ or Marjorie’s estate.

Where there is no evidence to confirm the order of death Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 provides that the eldest is presumed to have died first. This is known as the Commorientes rule. James was older than Marjorie and so, if the order of death could not be established, the joint assets would fall into Marjorie’s estate. Ann, as executrix and beneficiary of James’ estate issued a claim contending that she could prove that Marjorie died first and so James’ estate should receive the assets.

The matter proceeded to trial where the Judge concluded that the evidence was insufficient, on the balance of probabilities, to convince him that Marjorie had died first. The Commorientes rule therefore applied and the jointly owned assets were found to form part of Marjorie’s estate. This case highlights the need for conclusive evidence as to the order of death if you want to depart from the Section 184 position. In situations where there are variables and missing information which could influence the decision, the Court will be unwilling to depart from the Section 148 position without conclusive evidence to convince them that the burden of proof has been discharged.

Probate disputes are rarely straightforward and, given that emotions can run high following the loss of a loved one, it is unsurprising that people can often struggle to critically consider their position and that of their opponents. It is therefore important to seek the help of a specialist who can advise you on your options in an empathetic way.

If you would like to discuss a potential probate dispute please contact contentious probate specialist, Charlotte Dullaway, on 01823 446230 or via email charlotte.dullaway@pardoes.co.uk.

Posted in: Dispute Resolution