A tragic fight to prove which parent died first


01 August 2019

In a rare and sad case, two step-sisters are in dispute regarding the deaths of their respective parents. 

Mr and Mrs Scarle both died from hypothermia and were discovered by neighbours in 2016. They jointly owned their property and had some jointly held cash reserves. Their combined assets were worth approximately £300,000. 

Upon the death of the first spouse the jointly owned assets vested in the surviving spouse in their entirety until their death, at which point, as neither spouse had a will the assets would then pass to their relatives.

As both Mr and Mrs Scarle had children of their own from previous relationships, those that would ultimately benefit varied according to who predeceased who.

The key legal question was therefore, who died first? The presumption under section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 is that if two or more people die in circumstances where it is not possible to determine who died first; the younger is deemed to survive the elder. However, it is possible to rebut this presumption with compelling evidence.  

Mr Scarle was 79 years old whereas Mrs Scarle was 69 years old so the presumption is that Mr Scarle died first. However, Mr Scarle was in much better physical health than his wife, he had been her carer since 1998 when she suffered a stroke. 

Medical evidence suggested that Mrs Scarle had ‘probably’ died first based on the state of her body. However in order to rebut the presumption, Mrs Scarle's lawyers have submitted that the court would have to be faced with 'clear, reliable and compelling evidence’ to show, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, that Mrs Scarle had died first.

The judge hearing the case has reserved his decision until a later date, so we will wait to see how the case is decided. The case however is a stark reminder of the complicated and emotional nature of probate disputes.

We have a dedicated and specialist Contentious Trust and Probate Team who will be able to assist you with any query you may have.