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The Scarle case - Who died first?

The recent High Court case of Scarle v Scarle HC-2017-002117 is a sad case which highlights the importance of estate planning and acting reasonably in litigation.

Mr and Mrs Scarle were both found dead from hypothermia in their own home.  It was a second marriage for both of them and both had children from previous marriages.  The case was brought by their respective step-daughters as to who would inherit Mr and Mrs Scarle’s assets which were owned jointly (including the family home).

If Mr Scarle had died first, his wife would have inherited his estate, which upon her death, would then have passed to her daughter.  If Mrs Scarle had died first, Mr Scarle would have inherited the estate and on his death, it would then have passed to his daughter.

The Judge found that there was simply not enough evidence to determine who died first and therefore the statutory presumption (called the Commorientes Rule) applied.  This states that if it cannot be determined who died first, it is presumed the younger person outlived the elder. 

Mr Scarle was 79 and his wife 69 when their bodies were found.  Therefore, Mr Scarle’s assets passed to his wife and then onto her daughter in accordance with the terms of her will.

This case was a tragic set of circumstances that saw two step-sisters battling it out in court where one of them would walk away from the trial with all of the jointly owned assets and the losing party facing nothing but substantial legal costs.

The Scarle case highlights two significant elements.  First, the importance of succession planning, especially for those in second marriages with joint assets or other situations where there could be conflict between surviving family members.  Trust arrangements or ownership of property by tenants in common (as opposed to joint tenants) are both solutions that can avoid cases like this being brought to court in future.

Secondly, the importance of acting reasonably throughout litigation and considering carefully any offers to settle the claim or mediation are highlighted from this case.  Even the “winner” in a case may not recover all of its own legal costs if found to have acted unreasonably in the conduct of the litigation.  It is essential that dedicated solicitors are involved who can put their client’s best interests as a priority and advise on costs implications of running a case to trial.

If you believe you may need to update your Will or dispute a will or inheritance, please contact our litigation and contentious probate team for a free initial telephone consultation on 01926 491181.


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