London - The daughter of a pensioner found dead at home with her husband has won a £300 000 inheritance fight against her step-sister after a judge could not be sure which parent died first.
Police found the bodies of John and Ann Scarle, who each had children from previous marriages, at their Essex bungalow in October 2016.
They died from hypothermia, but it was unclear who passed away first. The High Court battle centred on a 100-year-old law over who should inherit their £280 000 home and £18 000 savings.
The wrangle was one of the first of its kind since the 1950s after a Chelsea family was killed by a Blitz bomb. Yesterday Judge Philip Kramer said it must be presumed that Mr Scarle, 79, died first because he was ten years older than Marjorie, 69.
It means Mrs Scarle’s daughter Deborah Cutler, and her brother Andre Farley, will inherit the late couple’s joint assets. Anna Winter, Mr Scarle’s daughter from a previous relationship, will receive £160,000 from his personal estate, but faces a £170,000 legal bill.
The deceased started their relationship in 1983 and bought their Leigh-on-Sea home in 1988.
Despite being ten years older, Mr Scarle cared for his wife after she had a stroke in 1998. Mr Scarle was last seen in early October 2016, when he told a neighbour he was ‘getting the car ready for Ann’, suggesting both were still alive.
However, on the evening of October 11, 2016, they were found dead from hypothermia. Mr Scarle was in the lounge and his wife was on the toilet floor.
The property was in disarray, with windows broken and a door ajar, suggesting it had been vandalised or burgled.
The court heard it was likely at least one of them was alive on October 7 – their 26th wedding anniversary – because a card sent by Mrs Cutler was found opened.
Mrs Cutler’s barrister, James Weale, told the judge that his client had made a ‘reasonable’ offer to share the estate.
But Mrs Winter claimed her stepmother probably died first, meaning her father inherited his wife’s share of the house, and so she should get their joint estate.
Her barrister, Amrik Wahiwala, said the fact that Mrs Scarle’s body was more decomposed suggested she had been dead longer.
The presumption that the oldest died first under the Law of Property Act 1925 is there to provide a solution in such cases.
Judge Kramer noted: ‘The only evidence which could point unequivocally to the sequence of death is the relative differences in decomposition – but does it?
‘I am left with two not improbable explanations. The first is that Mrs Scarle pre-deceased her husband, the second that the toilet area was warmer than the lounge.
‘I cannot discount the latter in the absence of evidence from which I could reliably reach such a conclusion. Accordingly, I cannot infer that it was the former.’