The High Court heard a dispute between two step-sisters who asked the court to decide which of their parents died first. This unusual case concerns John and Anne Scarle who tragically died at home from hypothermia in October 2016 but were not found until around a week later. The couple had no children together, but both had children from previous relationships but only one could inherit the couple’s jointly owned property in Leigh on Sea.

The key issue the court has been asked to decide is which of Mr and Mrs Scarle died first.

Mr and Mrs Scarle owned their property in Leigh On Sea together. If Mr Scarle died first, then his share of the property would have briefly passed to his wife. When she died, the property would then pass to her children Deborah and Andre. But if Mrs Scarle died first, her share would have briefly passed to her husband, and then on to his daughter Anna when he died.

Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 says where two or more persons die and it is uncertain which of them survived the other, the younger is deemed to survive the elder.

The need to use this legislation rarely arises in the modern day as it is usually possible to determine who, of two people, have died first (even when the deaths are very close or simultaneous). The last major case citing this legislation took place in 1963 where a couple had drowned at sea.

Although experts were instructed it was not possible to reliably determine even an approximate date of death, let alone time. The parties presented evidence based on sightings by neighbours and the date of post found in the property which had been opened.

Mr Scarle was aged 79 at his death whilst his wife was aged 69. As Mr Scarle was the eldest, under Section 184 it is presumed that he died first. Lawyers on behalf of Mrs Scarle’s daughter Deborah argued that must be right and said that the presumption is there to provide a solution in cases where it is not certain who survived longest, as in this case.

Lawyers for Mr Scarle’s daughter Anna argued that, on the balance of probabilities, it was Mrs Scarle who died first. This was based on evidence about the state of Mrs Scarle’s body when she was found by the police, which suggested she had been dead for longer than Mr Scarle.

The judge hearing the case decided that the 1925 Act should prevail and that Mr Scarle died first so that meant that Deborah and Andre inherited the whole Estate valued at £300,000, plus they recovered all their costs from Anna amounting to £179,000, as she effectively lost her case. There had been attempts before the hearing to settle the claim with Deborah offering Anna 60% of the Estate, which she rejected. A very costly decision ultimately.

The lesson to learn from this sad case is it is always better to make a Will so that your intentions are made clear to your relatives and certainty prevails.

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