Who died first? The inheritance consequences behind times of death
  • 28th Aug 2019
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I know what you’re thinking; how can it be that after a harrowing and tragic course of events culminating in the passing of a couple can the question of who died first be of any significance? How incredibly insensitive and discourteous I hear you say… but is it?

 

Considering that the answer could completely alter the destination of the assets arising from the estates of the deceased, the question of who died first could not be of more relevance. In cases where the order of death is unascertainable, Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 creates a presumption that the elder person died first.

 

A recent judgment from the High Court case of Scarle v Scarle has sought to clarify the legal position.

 

Facts of the case

 

Mr John Scarle (79) and Mrs Majorie Scarle (69) died from hypothermia in their Essex home on the same day, being 11 October 2016. The couple had no children of from their relationship but both had adult children from previous relationships.

 

The couple were found dead at the same time, so the key question for the court to decipher was which individual died first as the couples joint assets, (a house and a bank account containing £18,000) would revert to the child of the longest surviving parent. Based on the statutory position Mrs Scarle’s daughter Deborah would have inherited the assets.

 

Mr Scarle’s daughter Anna argued that there was evidence to suggest Mrs Scarle predeceased her father due to the fact that Mrs Scarle’s body was substantially more decomposed than Mr Scarle’s. Lawyers for Deborah argued that Mrs Scarle’s faster rate of decomposition could be explained by the warmer micro-environment within which she died, being the toilet, compared to Mr Scarle who was found in the colder lounge area. 

 

The results from the post-mortem were inconclusive in determining which of Mr or Mrs Scarle died first.

 

Judgment

 

His Honour Judge Kramer, in conclusion, accepted the submissions made by Deborah’s legal counsel and insisted that he was unable to effectively declare with certainty which of Mr or Mrs Scarle died first. Judge Kramer reverted back to and confirmed the statutory presumption that the elder individual predeceased the younger.

 

What does this case tells us?

 

Despite this case being rather complex in detail the message emanating from it is more straightforward. In an attempt to avoid unnecessary issues upon death good succession planning is key in allowing for your wishes to be fulfilled. A well drafted will covering all estate assets and eventualities should assist in allowing for a seamless transferral of your property to loved ones on the event of your passing.