23/09/2019

An interesting case caught my attention recently involving the commorientes rule, which yet again reinforced the perils of not having a will.

Although relatively rare, there are occasions when two or more people die at the same time in circumstances where it is not possible to determine who died first. In cases like this the commorientes rule is relied on.

The rule means that the older person is treated as having died before the younger person, so where there is no will, the asset will pass under intestacy rules to the younger person with the estate passing to their bloodline family.

In the case in question John Scarle, aged 79, and his wife Ann Scarle, 69, both died of hypothermia in the home that they shared sparking a bitter row between their daughters about who should inherit the £280,000 bungalow.

Mr Scarle’s daughter Anna argued that her stepmother was likely to have died first based on information about the decomposition of the bodies.
While her stepsister, Mrs Scarle’s daughter Deborah Cutler argued that it could not be said for certain who died first and, therefore, as her mother was younger, the property should pass to her.

The High Court ruled that uncertainty over the order of death meant the commorientes rule should apply, resulting in Deborah Cutler inheriting the entire estate and leaving Mr Scarle’s daughter with a bill for £150,000 in legal costs.

Advances in medical science and forensics means that it is rare for experts not to be able to ascertain the order of death but this case shows that it can happen.

The saddest part of the story for me are the years of courtroom battles that the sisters have had to endure and the bitter rift that has torn this family apart, all because Mr and Mrs Scarle failed to make wills.

A will would have ensured that if the couple wanted to treat their daughters equally, they could have done so and, of course, avoided huge upset and legal fees.

If you haven’t yet made your will, email david.birchall@beswicks.com or phone 01782 205000 for advice.