A woman has won an all-or-nothing inheritance battle against her stepsister after a court ruled it could not be determined which of their parents died first, in an example of a little-used English law once used to settle inheritance disputes when families were killed during wartime bombing.
John William Scarle, 79, and his wife Marjorie Ann Scarle, 69, were found dead in their bungalow in Leigh on Sea, in Essex, by police in October 2016 having died of hypothermia some days earlier.
It was not clear which of the two had died first, despite postmortem examinations, resulting in a clash between their two children from previous marriages over who would inherit their house.
Mr Scarle died without leaving a will and Mrs Scarle’s will apparently made no provision for her stepdaughter.
The home was jointly owned, meaning in their circumstances sole ownership would pass to the surviving partner’s descendants, but uncertainty around the timing of the deaths resulted in the legal dispute.
Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 states that when two or more people die in circumstances where it is not possible to determine who died first, the younger will be presumed to have survived the elder, meaning Mrs Scarle’s daughter Deborah Ann Cutler was set to inherit the family estate.
Her stepsister and Mr Scarle’s daughter, Anna Winter, claimed her father had likely outlived her stepmother, meaning he would briefly have inherited his wife’s estate and it should then pass to her.
Mr Justice Kramer considered centuries-old case law relating to shipwrecks and wartime bombing in his judgment, handed down on Tuesday, citing an inheritance dispute in 1853 after a family was killed in a shipwreck off Beachy Head.
The judgment also recalled a Scottish case in 1944 in which a wife’s life savings passed back to the Crown after she, her husband and children were killed during wartime bombing and her surviving family was unable to prove who died last.
The case between Ms Cutler and Ms Winter hinged on the fact that Mrs Scarle’s body was significantly more decomposed than her husband’s, meaning she could have died before her husband.
But barrister James Weale, representing Ms Cutler, claimed the different microclimate in the toilet, where the wife was found, and the lounge, where Mr Scarle was discovered, could explain the difference in decomposition between the two.
Mr Justice Kramer concluded that there was insufficient evidence to show Mrs Scarle had died before her husband. He could not discount that the “micro-environment of the toilet was warmer than the lounge”, he said.
As a result the Law of Property Act continued to apply and Mrs Scarle was presumed to have outlived Mr Scarle, handing the inheritance to Ms Cutler.