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STEP-SISTERS LEGAL BATTLE TO DETERMINE WHICH PARENT DIED FIRST

A legal battle surrounding very rare circumstances has arisen between two step-sisters over £300,000 worth of inheritance.  This is thought to be the first case of this kind to have been seen since the 1950’s.

Ann and John Scarle were married but both had children each from previous marriages. The couple died from hypothermia at their home in Essex. Their bodies were discovered in October 2016 after concerned neighbours had made a call to the police. However, the dates and timings of the deaths of Ann and John Searle remain inconclusive. Neither husband nor wife had left a will. 

The step-sisters are now embroiled in a legal battle over which of them is to inherit the home owned by Ann and John Searle.

The default legal position in such circumstances dates back to 1925 and the Law of Property Act. This states that the family of whichever parent died last would be the ones to inherit the £300,000 family home, with the other step-siblings receiving nothing. The 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 daughter of Ann Scarle argues that the presumption should be that John Scarle died first as he was older. However, the daughter of John Scarle argues that her step-mother, Ann Scarle, probably died first, as her father would have been more likely to survive longer as he was fitter and had been the full-time carer for his wife.

To date, experts have not been able to determine a definitive date or time of the sad deaths of the couple, nor does any current witness evidence provide any further conclusive information. The burden is on the daughter of Ann Scarle to prove that her mother died first.

The ruling for Judge Philip Kramer will therefore be on determining which parent died first. This judgement is expected at a later date.

Whilst these circumstances may be 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 the testator’s wishes on death, and to help avoid family disputes.

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

Article by Emily Curtis-Bennett

Sources: The Times, The Telegraph, Evening Standard