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The ground-breaking legal battle between two step-sisters has concluded recently at the High Court.

The legal battle between the step-sisters was over which of them was to inherit the home owned by Ann and John Searle. The bodies of Ann and John Searle were discovered in their home, with one body in the bathroom, and one in the lounge. However, the dates and timings of the deaths of Ann and John Searle remained inconclusive. Neither husband nor wife had left a will.  

The default legal position under Section 184 Law of Property Act 1925 states that the family of whichever parent died later would be the ones to inherit the £300,000 family home, with the other step-sibling receiving nothing. This law also states that in circumstances such as these, where it is not possible to determine who died first, the younger of the two will have been deemed to have survived the elder. 

The High Court battle concluded on Tuesday 13th August, with Judge Philip Kramer ruling in favour of the daughter of Ann Scarle. He ruled that whilst the couple had both died from hypothermia, it was not possible to determine whether Ann or John Searle had passed first, as the levels of decomposition of the bodies could have been affected by the different room temperatures of the bathroom and the lounge. Therefore, the Judge ruled that the default legal position would apply with the youngest of the deceased couple being deemed to have survived the elder.  As well as losing the inheritance, the daughter of John Scarle was ordered to pay the majority of her step-sisters legal costs, totalling approximately £84,000, and her own legal costs of £95,000.

Barristers for the daughter of John Scarle had argued that Ann Scarle, was likely to have died first given her health conditions.  They also argued that the decomposition of Ann Scarle’s body showed ‘on the balance of probabilities’ that Ann Scarle had deceased before John Scarle. 

However, barristers for the daughter of Ann Scarle had argued that the presumption should be that John Scarle died first as he was older. They submitted that the opposition should have to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Ann Scarle had deceased before John Scarle; not just ‘on the balance of probabilities’. 

This ruling may come as a surprise to many, as given the advancement in medical science since this law was created in 1925, it would be expected that we should now be able to determine the order of death. 

Whilst these circumstances were rare and unusual, it highlights the importance of putting in place a well-structured and well-drafted will to ensure that assets are dealt with in line with an individual’s wishes on death, and to help avoid family disputes and huge and unnecessary legal costs. 

For any advice on estate planning or drafting or reviewing your will, please contact Vassos Vassou, solicitor and Head of Private Client on or 0207 016 9336.  

Article by Emily Curtis-Bennett