The High Court handed down judgment yesterday to determine the sequence of deaths between the parents of two step-sisters. The step-sisters were in dispute because the order of deaths would determine the inheritance of the parents' joint assets. The Court upheld the statutory presumption that the oldest died first.

Circumstances of the case

The circumstances were highly peculiar. Mr Scarle and Mrs Scarle were found dead in their bungalow in Leigh on Sea in October 2016. Post-mortems revealed that both had died of hypothermia a number of days before being found.

The legal issue was straightforward. Mr and Mrs Scarle held a joint bank account and were joint tenants of their home (i.e. the surviving co-owner would inherit the deceased's share of the property). Therefore:

  • if Mrs Scarle was found to have died first, her husband would inherit the couple's joint assets. His estate would then pass in accordance with the intestacy rules to his only child, the Claimant
  • if Mr Scarle was found to have died first, his wife would inherit the joint assets. Upon her death, her estate would pass in accordance with her will

A century-old statute applied

A statute from almost a century ago attempts to provide certainty in these circumstances. Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 provides that, where two or more persons die in circumstances where the order of death is uncertain, the eldest shall be presumed to have died first. 

At the point of death, Mr Scarle was 79 years old and Mrs Scarle was ten years younger. If the presumption applied, the joint assets would effectively pass from Mr Scarle to Mrs Scarle, and then under her will.

The Claimant (Mr Scarle's daughter) argued that the presumption should not apply because there was no uncertainty as to the order of death. The Claimant relied on expert evidence that suggested that Mrs Scarle died first because her body was in a more advanced state of decomposition.

The Defendant (Mrs Scarle's daughter) argued that the presumption should apply because the Claimant could not prove the sequence of deaths. The Defendant argued that rates of decomposition are highly sensitive to environmental conditions, and the difference could be explained by micro-climates in the different rooms where Mr and Mrs Scarle were discovered. 

The Judge considered preceding cases, including those concerning shipwrecks in the 19th century and bombings during the Blitz of London in World War Two, and the expert evidence. 

An uncertain sequence of death

Ultimately, in light of persuasive explanations from both parties concerning the differences in decomposition, the Judge found that the sequence of death was uncertain. The Claimant could not show that it was more likely than not that Mrs Scarle died first. The statutory presumption that the 'eldest died first' was applied. As Mr Scarle was found to have died first, Mrs Scarle inherited the joint assets, which now pass under her estate. 

A lesson in settlement discussions

We understand that the Claimant refused to mediate and rejected the Defendant's offer of 60% of the joint assets. In the event, as the unsuccessful party, the Claimant was ordered pay her step-sister's costs and faces, we understand, a total costs bill of around £179,000. 

Given the distressing evidence brought to the attention of the Court (and now the public) and the costs to be borne by the Claimant, this case only serves to reinforce the merit of engaging reasonably with settlement discussions.