Inheritance row in High Court over order of parent’s deaths

A recent case concerning who will inherit following the deaths of an elderly couple is causing strife for two stepsisters, whose inheritance of their £280,000 joint property will depend on which of the couple is determined to have died first.

John and Ann Scarle were found dead at their home on 11 October 2016 having passed away from hypothermia. Both of them had children from previous marriages but no children together. John died leaving a daughter, Anna, and Anne died leaving a daughter and a son, Deborah and Andre.

Before we look at the issue in this case we must first consider the law itself. The law being considered here dates back 1925 and has seen little dispute over its time, with the most recent cases before this being in 1940 and the 1950’s. The rule is known as the commorientes rule and is provided for by section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925. It states that where two or more people die together in circumstances where it cannot be known who died first a legal presumption arises that the elder died before the younger.

John Scarle was older than his wife, so if this presumption was to be applied his estate would pass to his wife and then out of her estate to her two children in equal shares. This is what Ann’s daughter Deborah is arguing should happen.

John’s daughter Anna is arguing that the presumption shouldn’t apply as there is sufficient evidence that her stepmother died first, meaning that Ann’s estate would have passed to John and should now pass to Anna.

To rebut the presumption that John died first Anna would need to show beyond reasonable doubt that Ann Scarle died first, something which at the moment doesn’t appear possible due to the lack of direct evidence to confirm who died first, or to even pinpoint an exact date of death for either of the couple. Currently there is only speculation over who died first and when they died based on last sightings by neighbours, and an opened wedding anniversary card suggesting that at least one of them was alive on the 7 October 2016.

The judge will reserve his ruling on the case until a later date. Check back here for updates!

Siobhan Rattigan-Smith

After graduating from the University of Lincoln with a 2:1 in Law in 2014 Siobhan has dedicated herself to will writing as the head of the Society’s technical team. Siobhan is also the lead tutor for The College of Will Writing, teaching a handful of courses including our SWWEPP 4-day introductory course.


  • Derek Wooldridge

    29th July 2021 at 12:37 pm

    What did their Wills state ?


    • Siobhan Smith

      29th July 2021 at 12:57 pm

      Hi Derek, only one of the couple actually had a will. The property and bank account were held as joint tenants so passed to the survivor of the couple first. If Ann was the second to die then her will passed everything to her own children. If John was the second to die then his daughter would be his rightful heir on his intestacy.


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