Feuding family and importance of well drafted wills

There has recently been a case in the High Court regarding step-sisters disputing their inheritance.

The parents, Mr and Mrs Scarle, died of hypothermia in 2016 and left an estate of £300,000. The estate mainly composed of a property in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. The couple had a child each from previous relationships.

The children feuded over the dates of death of their parents. This is important. If one has died prior to the other then technically the first person to die would have transferred their share either according to intestacy or Will. Then if transferred to the surviving spouse would transfer by their Will or intestacy. Unless the Wills specified differently.

In this case the property was owned jointly and therefore would have passed automatically to the survivor.

What is the law?

This case revolved around section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925. This states that if it is impossible to determine which of the couple died first then the eldest is deemed to have died first. Therefore, as Mr Scarle was 10 years older than his wife, Mrs Scarle’s daughter, Deborah Cutler, and her brother, Andre Farley, would be the joint beneficiaries. Deborah Cutler’s barrister argued this point.

The Other Argument

However, Mr Scarle’s daughter, Anna Winter, argued that her father most likely survived his wife because he was healthier than her, despite the age gap. There were two factors to this argument. The first was that Mr Scarle was Mrs Scarle’s full-time carer after a stroke she suffered in the late nineties. The other factor was that an anniversary card sent by Deborah Cutler was found opened suggesting one of the couple was alive. But they conceded that there was ‘no direct evidence’ to suggest which of the couple succumbed to hypothermia first.

Judge’s Response

The court attempted to mediate and even suggested a 60:40 split in favour Anna Winter. She rejected the offer and mediation.

It was also found that the home was purchased using funds from the sale of Mrs Scarle’s former residence.

The Judge ruled that the Law of Property Act 1925 was enshrined in law. He awarded the inheritance to Deborah Cutler and ordered Anna Winter to pay the £179,000 in legal bills.

What should we take from the case?

The important aspect to take away is to have a Will drafted and properly attested. That you discuss the eventualities of dying both together and separately. A carefully well executed Will could alleviate these issues.

It is also important to involve your loved ones in your planning. Tell them what you want to do and why? If you involve them then it could resolve disputes and fractions in family units.

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