A Case of Simultaneous Deaths: Who Died First?

Insights - 21/08/2019

Kellie Williams-Jauvel, Partner in our Dispute Resolution team who specialises in contested wills, trusts and probate looks into a case of simultaneous deaths in the case of Scarle Dec’d vs Scarle Dec’d 2019 EWHC 2224(Ch). 

Who Died First?

A recent High Court battle has had the legal profession gripped in what has been described as an “extraordinary all or nothing” dispute. The case is between two stepsisters locked in an inheritance battle. When Mr and Mrs Scarle were both found dead, both with different beneficiaries to their respective estates, it came down to Section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925 to determine who would receive the estate and who would be left with nothing. So, is it possible to determine who died first, and why is it so important to know?

The case

Mr and Mrs Scarle both died in their jointly owned property, worth over £280,0000. Both parties had died of hypothermia. However, when the bodies were discovered, it was almost impossible to determine who had died first.

Mr and Mrs Scarle each had a daughter from a previous relationship, with both Mr and Mrs Scarle leaving their estates to each other upon their death, in default of which their own children would inherit their respective parent’s estate. When the stepsisters were unable to negotiate an out-of-court settlement, it was a fight in court to determine who should inherit the estate and who would be left with nothing.

To determine who should receive the inheritance, it is crucial to prove on the balance of probabilities that one party died after the other. This case had to investigate all of the evidence to show that it more likely than not that one party had died before the other.

The evidence

Mrs Scarle was found deceased in the bathroom. Mr Scarle was found deceased in the lounge. They were found on 11 October 2016. However, it is believed that death occurred in the period 4 October to 9 October. Furthermore, when they were discovered, their house had been targeted by vandals and burglars.

Post-mortem examinations found that both parties died from hypothermia. Mr Scarle suffered from a period of neglect prior to death. On the other hand, Mrs Scarle suffered from a number of medical ailments which could have caused a collapse.

Forensic pathology experts looked at the level of decomposition of the bodies to determine who had died first. However, the bathroom, where Mrs Scarle was found, was considerably warmer than the lounge, where Mr Scarle was located. This difference in temperature could considerably alter the rate of decomposition. As a result, it was not possible to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that one party had died before the other.

Consequently, the claimant in the case was unable to prove who died first.

Law of Property Act 1925, Section 184

With no cogent proof available to the court, the case then turned to a law which is almost 100 years old. The law states; “for all purposes affecting the title to property, be presumed to have occurred in order of seniority, and accordingly, the younger shall be deemed to have survived the elder.”

The Law of Property Act 1925, Section 184 is seldom used in current cases due to the sophisticated technology and forensic information, which means that the time of the death can usually be determined. In fact, there have only been three other significant cases surrounding this law, which took place in 1940, 1958 and 1963.

The Law of Property Act 1925, Section 184, also known as the Commorientes Rule, means that if it is not possible to determine who died first in the case of ‘simultaneous deaths’ then it is deemed that the younger would have survived the elder. Mr Scarles was 79, and Mrs Scarle was 69. Mr Scarles was therefore deemed to have died first, his estate passing to Mrs Scarles, who then died leaving her entire estate to her only daughter. As a result, the court ruled that Mrs Scarle’s daughter would win the case.

Consequently, Mrs Scarle’s daughter won a £280,000 inheritance. Her stepsister was left with legal fees amounting to around £150,000.

Wills, Trusts and Probate Disputes

Kellie specialises in contested wills, viewing this case as a fascinating use of a century-old law that has seldom been used since.

If you have an issue or dispute surrounding a will, trust or probate, then please get in touch to discuss your case. Kellie is contactable by phone on 020 8971 1031 or email [email protected] 

Disclaimer:

Although correct at the time of publication, the contents of this newsletter/blog are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute, legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article. Please contact us for the latest legal position.